Lino Pertile
(Harvard University)
13 December 2007

Virgil is not angry. A note on Inferno 27.21

In his latest contribution to the EBDSA (Inferno 27.21“Istra ten va, più non t’adizzo”: a new hypothesis,May 5, 2007), Robert Hollander contrasts Virgil’s first address to Ulysses at 26.79-84, which he defines “a flagrant attempt at captatio benevolentiae,” with Virgil’s parting phrase to the Greek hero as reported by Guido at 27.21 (“Istra ten va, più non t’adizzo”), which he calls instead a “crass and abrupt vernacular dismissal.” This parting phrase proves, according to Hollander, that Virgil is personally “very angry with Ulysses,” and the reason for this anger, as suggested by Nicholas Desai, a student of Hollander’s, is that in his speech “the Greek adventurer [= Ulysses] slighted the hero of the Latin epic [= Aeneas] and its author [= Virgil] in three ways: 1) by presenting himself “as prior to Aeneas in his discovery of Gaeta”; 2) by “his related rejection of Virgilian pietas in his reported refusal to be restrained by family ties”; and 3) by reminding Virgil “of his own closeness to salvation and failure to grasp it.” I am grateful to Bob Hollander for enticing us to reflect on this important detail of Dante’s account of the eighth bolgia, but I am troubled by the interpretation he puts forward to the point that I cannot leave it unchallenged.

Like everyone else, I too see that, instead of keeping to the lofty language with which he had addressed Ulysses in canto 26, Virgil, reportedly, uses in canto 27 a lowly phrase that is supposed to sound “Lombard.” But why does he do so, and what is the meaning of this change of style? My contention is that the incriminated phrase is – dare I say it? – a clumsy attempt on the part of the poet to make Virgil sound “Lombard” in order to effect the necessary transition from Ulysses to Guido; albeit lowly, the phrase is not rude, and it ultimately reflects on Guido’s character, rather than saying anything about either Virgil or Ulysses.

First of all, let’s examine the function of Virgil’s phrase. As I have argued elsewhere,[1] though they are guilty of the same sin, Ulysses and Guido are very different characters, and this difference makes the transition from the classical hero to the vernacular condottiere somewhat challenging for the poet. In the case of Ulysses, it is Virgil who, recognizing the “fiamma cornuta,” can ask one of its two inhabitants to speak. In Guido’s case, however, the initiative has to come from Guido. So, resorting to a trick that he has used before (for instance, in the case of Farinata, 10.22-27), the poet makes Virgil sound “Lombard,” i.e., Northern Italian, thus giving the “Lombard” Guido a pretext for speaking to him. In addressing himself to Ulysses, Virgil appealed to something they share (the Trojan war, lived through by Ulysses and partly recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid) using a gravitas that befits their common epic backgrounds. Likewise, in addressing himself to Virgil, Guido appeals to what he believes to be their shared Lombard origin and language: this is the reason for putting that particular phrase in his mouth. Indeed, had Virgil closed his interview with Ulysses with a high-flown Italian line, in the style he used to open it, Guido would have had no reason for addressing him. The “Lombard” phrase is the bridge that allows the poet to shift the narrative from the classical setting of Ulysses’s final journey to Guido’s contemporary Romagna and the vernacular anecdote of Guido’s meeting with Pope Boniface.

If the purpose of Virgil’s reported phrase were to express contempt for, or simply rudely dismiss, Ulysses, its vernacular veneer would contradict what Virgil says at 73-75, and make no sense at all – unless, of course, we think that Virgil would be unable to express his contempt in the same rhetorical style in which he displayed his respect for the Greek (“perch’e’ fuor greci,” 75) in his initial address. This is not Dante’s strategy, as is made clear by the fact that the stylistic level of Virgil’s phrase is compatible with only one of the characters on stage, the one who actually says it, and it is him it obliquely characterizes, rather than Ulysses or Virgil.

But what is the tone of this phrase? The narrator gives us a preview of it when he describes the flame of Ulysses leaving the stage “queta,” at last, “con licenza del dolce poeta.” As Christopher Kleinhenz has privately written, this qualification of Virgil’s address hardly chimes with a rude dismissal.[2] Later however, Guido tells us that Virgil’s precise words were “Istra ten va, più non t’adizzo.” Two of these words are meant to give the phrase its “Lombard” veneer: “istra” and “adizzo.” Unfortunately, both are problematic, and neither clearly Lombard.

“Istra,” meaning ‘now,’ is a hapax, possibly Dante’s own invention. It is probably formed on “issa,” an adverb found in the area of Lucca as well as in the North of Italy. Had Dante written “Ora” instead of “Istra,” we would not be having this discussion. The styleme “or” followed by the imperative is very common in the Commedia.[3] See for example: “or va” (Inf. 2.139, Purg. 8.133 and 24.82); “or te ne va” (Inf. 17.67); “or va tu sú” (Purg. 4.114); “or movi” (Inf. 2.67). At Purg. 19.139, Pope Adrian tells Dante: “Vattene omai: non vo’ che più t’arresti,” and nobody, not even R. Hollander,[4] has detected any discourtesy in the pope’s phrase. Why should the word “istra,” if it ever existed, lend the phrase negative, and not just dialectal, connotations?

“Adizzare” is a rare, Tuscan and center-Italian verb, which Dante uses only here, in a rhyming position, probably assuming – wrongly – that it has Northern connotations. It is a variant of “aizzare” meaning ‘to incite,’ ‘provoke,’ ‘torment,’ and is associated with ‘attizzare,’ literally ‘to stoke a fire.’ Thus “più non t’adizzo” means ‘I no longer torment you.’ This makes perfect sense coming, as it does, immediately after the poet has described the torture Guido and all the flame-souls have to endure before they can utter a single word through the fire that envelops them (7-18).

So, the overall meaning of Virgil’s phrase, as reported by Guido, is: “Now go your way. I no longer torment you (by inciting you to speak).”[5] There is neither contempt for Ulysses here, nor any hint of anger or even impatience. Quite the contrary, there is, on the part of Virgil, a tinge of regret that he made a man-flame speak, when he realizes, after the description of Guido’s mode of speech, that speaking is so excruciatingly painful for them. Something very similar happens when Virgil apologizes to Pier della Vigna for making Dante break a twig from the thorn-bush that is Piero (13.46-51). Fredi Chiappelli, a Tuscan, finds “una durezza verbale che lascia attoniti” in Virgil’s phrase to Guido, which he calls, rather extravagantly, a “frase mantovana,”[6] but I, a “Lombard,” hear in it empathy and compassion, a tone that brings Virgil closer to Guido rather than distancing him from Ulysses. Indeed it is Virgil’s compassionate tone that, in the context, makes Guido’s address to him sound natural and convincing.

So Virgil is not angry, or I at least cannot detect any sign of anger in his speech and behavior. The reason for this lack of anger, I suggest, is quite straightforward: Ulysses does not say anything offensive.

[1] L. Pertile, “ Inferno XXVII. Il peccato di Guido da Montefeltro,” in Atti dell’Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti. Classe di Scienze morali, 141 (1982-83): 147-78, and Id., “Ulisse, Guido e le sirene,” Studi Danteschi 65 (2000): 101-18.

[2] “with the gentle poet’s leave” is J. and R. Hollander’s translation: see Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio (New York: Anchor Books, 2003).

[3] For the use of the adverbs “ora,” “or,” “mo” and their synonyms “issa” and “istra,” see F. Bruni, “Istra: una falsa ricostruzione dantesca?”, in Omaggio a Gianfranco Folena (Padova: Editoriale Programma, 1993), pp. 419-28. As Bruni has shown, the manuscript tradition presents “issa” and even “ora” as variants of “istra,” and the early commentators definitely prefer “issa.” Bruni is inclined to accept Petrocchi’s “istra” as lectio difficilior of the more traditional “issa,” but he suggests that the word may be Dante’s own coinage. In any case, the “Lombard” nature of the word is far from certain.

[4] J. and R. Hollander’s translation says: “Now go your way. I would not keep you longer.”

[5] J. and R. Hollander do not translate “più non t’adizzo,” probably subsuming it in their “I ask you nothing more.”

[6] Fredi Chiappelli, “Il colore della menzogna nell’Inferno dantesco,” Letture Classensi 18 (1989): 115-28 (p.123). Given that the text quoted by Chiappelli is “Issa ten va,” and the only character who says issa in the Commedia isBonagiunta da Lucca, it is hard to see what distinctive Mantuan features Virgil’s phrase displays that justify Chiappelli’s qualification.