Robert Hollander
(Princeton University, Emeritus)
5 May 2007

Inferno 27.21: "Istra ten va, più non t'adizzo": a new hypothesis

This verse has caused puzzlement for a long time.  Even its linguistic status is debated: It is generally recognized to be a "vernacularism," if there is no shared certainty as to exactly what sort [1].  Nonetheless, most in fact understand that it probably is meant to represent a Virgilian descent into the Lombard vernacular (his own, given the fact of his birth near Mantua; further, and as some nineteenth-century commentators reminded us, the Latin poet revealed his own sense of his Lombard roots in Inferno I.68, when he refers to his "parenti . . . lombardi") [2].  It is also apparent that "Ciampolo" believes, from Virgil's speech, that he is a Lombard (Inferno 22.99).  This contrasts with his lofty speech, in whatever language we think it is couched, in the previous canto.  Indeed, there are still conflicting attempts to resolve the problem of what language Virgil employs to address Ulysses, whether Latin, Greek, Italian, Lombard, or the lingua franca of the Commedia (an imaginary language spoken by all characters in the poem who can thus communicate despite linguistic barriers, a kind of refined Esperanto avant la lettre).  This brief paper will not attempt to deal with that question, which remains unresolved.  The aim here is to come to grips with a second and related issue, the register of the linguistic gesture made in Virgil's dismissal of Ulysses and the reason for its tone.

Several other details in Virgil's interaction with Ulysses in these two cantos have caused widely varied responses on the part of commentators.  However, that Dante has staged the encounter with Ulysses over two cantos reinforces the position of those who think that many aspects of these two scenes should be regarded as closely related, from the nature of the sin exhibited by both Ulysses and Guido (false counsel, in the sense of morally repugnant, if all too effective, advice -- if that view continues to find entrenched opposition) [3] to the possibly historical notion that Guido was in fact "the new Ulysses," a phrase used of him by Filippo Villani seven centuries ago [4].

Perhaps the first response to the verse that revealed some awareness of its difficulty and strangeness was offered by Alessandro Vellutello (comm. to vv. 16-21).  After claiming that Virgil, in his attempt at captatio benevolentiae, indeed had spoken to Ulysses and Diomedes in Greek, the commentator now understands that, to Virgil, having gotten "quello che voleva da lui [Ulisse], poco importava, nel licentiarlo, in che lingua si parlassi, non essendo necessario con quelli, che hanno usato l'ingegno nel vitio, d'osservar tutti i convenienti termini, come con quelli, che l'hanno usato ne la virtù."  Vellutello thus becomes one of the relatively few to understand that Virgil's linguistic shift mirrors an attitudinal adjustment: Having had Ulysses do his will by narrating his last voyage, he is as a result less eager to speak in the high style.  To this sort of awareness that something is not right in the picture of Virgil's reaction to Ulysses' response, Castelvetro (comm. to vv. 19-23) adds a curious animadversion: "S'imagina il conte Guido che Virgilio fosse fastidito del lungo ragionare d'Ulisse, e perciò non sia per restare e per parlare con lui."  Even if he seems not to have grasped the likely cause of Virgil's anger, about which there will be more, below, Castelvetro does at least understand that the Roman poet, guide in this Christian poem, is in fact very angry.  At what?

Among the moderns, Bennassuti (comm. to verse 3) creates (and then solves) quite a different problem.  He wonders why Virgil needs to speak to Ulysses at all, in taking leave of him: "Perchè Virgilio dà licenza ad Ulisse di andarsene?  Bisogna notare che tutti questi spiriti chiusi entro la loro fiamma, non veggono le persone con cui parlano impediti dalla fiamma che li circonda. . . .  Se Virgilio invece fosse partito senza dirgli altro, Ulisse non avrebbe potuto sapere se dovesse ancora rimanersi o andarsene, perchè della partenza di Virgilio non si sarebbe accorto.  Ci voleva adunque la licenza a voce."  This gloss may serve as yet another example of the avoidance behavior in commentators who cannot imagine that Dante would ever portray Virgil in a less than noble light.  Carlo Steiner (comm. to vv.19-21), however, does a good deal better: "Ben diverso il tono da quello solenne con il quale lo aveva invitato a parlare.  Là parlava all'eroe, risvegliandolo come tale ai ricordi della vita, nel congedo Ulisse non è piú altro che un dannato cui non si può dire certo: vattene in pace."  And see Sapegno (comm. to vv. 20-21): "Altri intende lombardo per italiano, in genere; ma la formula riferita subito dopo ha di fatto una patina dialettale (istra è un lombardismo) e un accento popolaresco, che stride se ripensiamo al tono alto con cui Virgilio s'era prima rivolto ad Ulisse."  All such perceptions help the reader become aware of the tension that exists between Virgil's salutation of Ulysses, so grandiose and classicizing, and his dismissal, so abrupt and salty.

It is only recently that a more satisfying understanding has come forward, as reflected in the work of Nicola Fosca (comm. to vv. 19-24): "[N]on possiamo dire se agli eroi greci Virgilio abbia parlato lombardo, tuttavia è certo che la patina dialettale della frase di Virgilio contrasta col tono alto delle parole inizialmente rivolte ad Ulisse."  Fosca's gloss goes on to cite Mazzotta [5] and Chiappelli [6] as his predecessors in the interpretive spirit that he proposes, the latter making the strongest point yet offered about the contrast between Virgil's two addresses to Ulysses: "Virgilio scaccia Ulisse con una durezza verbale che lascia attoniti.  Vattene via di qua, non mi servi più a niente, gli dice, e non nella lingua dei poeti, bensì in villano dialetto" (p. 123).  The question that remains unanswered is: Exactly what has triggered Virgil's dismissive anger?

In the fall term of 2006, at Dartmouth College, where I was visiting professor in the Department of French and Italian, a student, Nicholas Desai '08, wrote a brief paper in which he suggested that Virgil was in fact very angry with Ulysses and that his anger had several causes, all connected with what he had heard in Ulysses' self-narrative, which he considered an attempt to rival his own alti versi.  These causes include principally Ulysses' self-presentation as prior to (and thus better than?) Aeneas in his discovery of Gaeta before the wandering Trojan hero went there (and named it, I would add, after his nurse -- hardly the stuff of true epic heroes) and in his related rejection of Virgilian pietas in his reported refusal to be restrained by family ties -- the willed contrast with Aeneas is palpable.  In addition, Desai argues, Ulysses' report of his having glimpsed the mount of Purgatory reminds Virgil of his own closeness to salvation and failure to grasp it, as is evident from his fourth Eclogue and his situation among the damned.  In such ways, then, has the Greek adventurer slighted the hero of the Latin epic and its author.  This accounts for the sudden change in Virgil's tone, from classical rhetorical overkill ("s'io meritai di voi . . . , s'io meritai di voi" [26.80-81]) in a flagrant attempt at captatio, now descending to crass and abrupt vernacular dismissal.  Such an understanding makes sense of a passage that has long caused dismay and wild surmise.  While it may itself be suspect, as possibly another such surmise, I think it "works."  It is presented here for further reflection.

[1] See, inter alios, Francesco Bruni, "Istra: una falsa ricostruzione dantesca?" in Omaggio a Gianfranco Folena, ed. Pier Vincenzo Mengaldo (Padua: Editoriale Programma, 1993), 419-28, on the problems associated with finding any attested presence of the term, in this form, in Dante's Italy and the possibility that it is a Dantean coinage.

[2] Guido da Pisa is adamant on this subject: "'Istra ten va, più non t'aizzo'.  Ista sunt proprie vocabula Lombardorum; et tantum sonant quantum in gramatica: 'Recede modo, plus te tenere nolo'" ["Take yourself off now, I do not wish to detain you any longer"--  comm. to verse 21].  It is interesting to compare the "soft" version of Virgil's first phrase, translated by the Anonimo fiorentino (comm. to vv. 19-21) as "Vatti con Dio," an inadequate translation that serves to remind us of the unsmiling character of Virgil's actual words of farewell.  (These and the other citations of Dante's commentators are drawn from the Dartmouth Dante Project.)

[3]See, inter alios, Lino Pertile, "Dante e l'ingegno di Ulisse," Stanford Italian Review 1 (1979): 35-65.

[4] Cited by Hollander, "The Tragedy of Divination in Inferno XX," in Studies in Dante (Ravenna: Longo, 1980), 142.

[5] Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 88-89.

[6] Fredi Chiappelli, "Il colore della menzogna nell'Inferno dantesco," Letture classensi 18 (1989): 115-28.