Robert Hollander
(Princeton University, Emeritus)
4 October 2007

The Sibyl in Paradiso 33.66 and in De civitate Dei 18.23

                   Qual è colüi che sognando vede,
                     che dopo 'l sogno la passione impressa
                     rimane, e l'altro a la mente non riede,
                   cotal son io, ché quasi tutta cessa       
                     mia visïone, e ancor mi distilla          
                     nel core il dolce che nacque da essa.          
                   Così la neve al sol si disigilla;
                     così al vento ne le foglie levi
                     si perdea la sentenza di Sibilla.
                                                                   (Par. 33.58-66)

To describe his heightened experience, which challenges his expressive powers (as it had first challenged his ability to perceive what was shown him), Dante turns to simile. After allowing us to understand that he saw God (vv. 52-57), he now offers, not a single simile, but three of them, in order to express the extent of his loss. This is perhaps the only time in the poem that he deploys three similes back-to-back; in any case, the Trinitarian nature of what he has seen (as will be made clear in vv. 115-120) is possibly reflected in their number. The last is the penultimate simile in a poem that employs this trope more frequently than a reader of Dante’s previous work might expect. Surely the poet’s use of it reflects his sense of the Latin epic simile, so familiar to him, particularly from the pages of Virgil. And this, the last of three, is unmistakably Virgilian in its reference.

And in it we come upon the name of the Sibyl.[1] We may wonder why we have not heard it before. It is as though Dante were holding her in reserve for his hundredth canto (as we shall see, that number is three times associated with her in one passage involving her in the Aeneid). The Sibyl, we may sometimes fail to remember, was merely the conduit for Apollo's messages. Thus, and as Benvenuto (comm. to vv. 64-66) observes, both the Sibyl and Dante lost track of a communication from a divinity.[2] If we recall the first two cantos of this canticle, with their insistence on Apollo as God's "stand-in" (Par. 1.13; 2.8), we can see why Benvenuto makes Dante and the Sibyl companions in losing track of the truth revealed by "Apollo."

Recently, Lauren Scancarelli Seem has argued, following this suggestion of Benvenuto’s, that the Sibyl is in fact typus Dantis as vatic poet.[3] We may want to consider that Paradiso opened with an invocation to the good Apollo (Par. 1.13) to give this poet the power to teach us how to pray better.[4] Whatever our conclusion, we certainly have to admit that the Sibyl’s presence here is not only surprising, but represents a potentially dangerous decision on Dante’s part. Is his own poem to be associated with ambages, the snares and delusions of classical misrepresentation of true things? We perhaps remember the solitary presence in the poem of the Italian version of that word (Par. 17.31), where it has a sense of impenetrable and deceptive speech and surely seems to be associated with scrambled Sibylline utterance.[5] Or are we to understand that Dante’s version of Sibylline utterance is unscrambled?

The history of the commentators' response to this Virgilian reference is strange and intriguing, beginning with the mistake of Francesco da Buti (or his scribe), who identifies (comm. to vv. 55-66) the source as being in Aeneid V, when he clearly means Aeneid III. All the other earlier commentators, beginning with Pietro (Pietro1, comm. to vv. 58-66), and including Benvenuto, John of Serravalle, and then Daniello and Venturi, refer only to the appropriate passage in Aeneid VI. However, beginning with Lombardi (comm. to vv. 64-66), every commentator in the DDP (except two) refers only to the passage in Aeneid III (443-451), which is the one in which the scattering of her leaves is described; the second passage, while also referring to that usual result, has Aeneas convincing the oracle to speak, and not write, her expression of Apollo's response. However, it is probably helpful to have both scenes in mind (the only two commentators in the DDP who refer to both passages are Oelsner and Singleton).

The passage in the Aeneid (VI.42-155) describing the Sibyl's cave is both long and full of arresting "Dantean" detail. The cave possesses one hundred mouths and one hundred gates (VI.43); Aeneas requests that the Sibyl not write her "poems" (carmina) on leaves to be scattered by the wind, but recite them aloud (VI.74-75); the hundred gates open and their breezes carry her reply (VI.81-82); she gives a prophecy concerning the "first safe road" (via prima salutis), which in the original Latin sounds like a Christian message, "the first way to salvation"; Virgil (VI.99) typifies her utterance as "horrifying enigmas" (horrendas ambages), a phrase that Dante has picked up, as we have seen, in Par. 17.31; Aeneas asks (VI.108) the Sibyl to bring him into his father's sight (ad conspectum cari genitoris), while Dante hopes to see his Father. While there are other resonances of the last four dozen verses in Dante's poem, they are perhaps not relevant to this passage.

If the obvious references to Virgil have been recognized, there is also possibly a reference to Augustine, which has only rarely been noticed and not exploited at all. It is found in De civitate Dei 18.23, a text vengefully hostile to Virgil for his prideful view of Rome's continuing and sempiternal hegemony (especially now that the city has been sacked in the year 410). Augustine says that the Sibyl (not the Cumaean but the Erythraean – he later hedges by saying it may have been the Cumaean) had prophesied the coming of Christ and ought to be considered an inhabitant of the City of God. What led Augustine to make such claims may have been a desire to castigate Virgil, either for not heeding his own Sibyl (who, after all, presides over the fourth Eclogue) or for choosing to sponsor the wrong one. Here is a portion of what Augustine explains in his lengthy analysis of this poem: The first letters of each successive line in the Greek Sibylline pronouncement spell out, Augustine reports, "Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour." He continues: "And the verses are twenty-seven, which is the cube of three. For three times three are nine; and nine itself, if tripled, so as to rise from the superficial square to the cube, comes to twenty-seven. But if you join the initial letters of these five Greek words,... they will make the word ίχθύς ['ichthus'], that is, 'fish,' in which word Christ is mystically understood, because He was able to live, that is, to exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters" (tr. M. Dods). Should one want to gild the lily, one might note that Dante's verse about the Sibyl, if it contains six words (and not five), does in fact contain twenty-seven letters.

Notice of this passage in St. Augustine is not a frequent feature of the commentaries.[6] It seems sensible to conclude that Dante's belated reference to the Sibyl deserves more attention than it has been given and that it may reflect Augustine's extraordinary view of her prophesying.

[1] For some of the Sibyl’s afterlife in Western literature, see the article by Philippe Verdier on her appearance to Augustine at Ara coeli in Rome, Mélanges de l'École française à Rome 94 (1982): 85-119. And for a collection of studies of the Sibyl's antique and medieval presence, see Febo Allevi, Con Dante e la Sibilla ed altri (dagli antichi al volgare) (Milan: Edizioni Scientifico-Letterarie, 1965) as well as Monique Bouquet and Françoise Morzadec, eds., La Sibylle: Parole et représentation (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2004). Allevi discusses this passage on pp. 443-48.

[2] Cited in the note to 33.65-66, Paradiso, tr. Robert and Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007). Independent notice of Benvenuto’s observation is found in Lauren Scancarelli Seem, "Nolite iudicare: Dante and the Dilemma of Judgment," in Writers Reading Writers, ed. J.L. Smarr (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2007), p. 87, n. 2. All citations of Dante’s commentators refer to the texts found in the Dartmouth Dante Project.

[3]Seem, ibid., p. 73.

[4] See Hollander on Paradiso 1.35, EBDSA (Nov. 2005) and in Letteratura Italiana Antica 7 (2006): 241-47.

[5] See the notes to Paradiso 17.31-36 and 31 in my commentary to Paradiso.

[6] See, however, Benvenuto (comm. to these verses), who points to it at some length. He is followed apparently only by Campi. While suggesting this connection earlier, Hollander neglected these two precursors in Il Virgilio dantesco (Florence: Olschki, 1983),  pp. 146-50.