John A. Scott
(The University of Western Australia)
29 April 2003

Paradiso 22.151: "L'aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci": Philology and Hermeneutics.

Readers of English translations of Dante’s poem will be familiar with the rendering of aiuola as “threshing floor.” This is found, e.g., in translations by Norton, Wicksteed, Bickersteth, Bergin, Sinclair, Ciardi, Reynolds, Singleton, Musa, and Mandelbaum (to name but a few). Laurence Binyon has “small round floor” in his version of Par. 22.151, but “this small threshing-floor” in Par. 27.86. In this paper, I shall argue that Longfellow’s unfortunate choice of “threshing floor” was an image that could strike readers as both biblical and poetic, until it became the basis for interpretations that are not justified by Dante’s text.

The first translation of the entire Commedia into English was the work of Henry Francis Cary. Published in 1814, although its paragraphs of blank verse ignore Dante’s essential building blocks of terzine, it gained the approval of Coleridge and Foscolo. For Par. 22.151 we read: “This petty area (over which we stride so fiercely),” while “questa aiuola” in Par. 27.86 becomes “this dim spot.”[1] Ichabod Charles Wright’s translation (into rhymed six-line stanzas) was published in 1840. Wright offers: “This little globe which fills us with such pride” (Par. 22), and “this little spot” (Par. 27)[2]. In 1867, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) gave English readers the first blank verse translation of the Comedy in which Dante’s terzine were typographically indicated by indentation. Here – also for the first time – aiuola was rendered as “threshing-floor” in both Par. 22 and 27[3]. In his note to Par. 22.151, Longfellow comments:

The threshing-floor, or little area of our earth. The word ajuola would also bear the rendering of garden-plot, but to Dante this world was rather a threshing-floor than a flower-bed. The word occurs again in Canto XXVII. 85, and in its Latin form in the Monarchia III […] In looking down from the terrace of Monte Cassino upon the circular threshing-floor of stone in a farm lying far below I first felt the aptness of Dante’s phrase. This very scene may have suggested it to him. Boethius Consolation of Philosophy II, Prosa 7; “You have learned from astronomy that this earth is but a point in respect to the vast extent of the heavens […] What can there be great or pompous in a glory circumscribed in so narrow a circuit?[4]

That scene and the romantic fantasy that the poet of the Commedia may have gazed on a threshing floor from the heights of Monte Cassino inspired Longfellow’s momentous choice: “rather a threshing-floor than a flower-bed.”
Charles S. Singleton, in the commentary that accompanied the translation of Paradiso, noted:

The ‘threshing-floor’ (the inhabited part of the earth) makes us ferocious not only in our striving to possess as much of it as we may, but because of the grain that is on it at harvest time, which can only diminish by division or partnership, as this poem’s central thesis makes clear (Purg. XV, 49-75). For the Latin area (the word from which aiuola derives) in the sense of ‘threshing-floor,’ see Virgil, Georg. I, 178-81).”[5]

Not content with the image of the threshing-floor and its grain that must be divided amongst the earth’s inhabitants, John Freccero discovered (c. 1970) a biblical connotation in Dante’s aiuola:

One of the last figures used by Dante to describe his transcendental view of universal history and of his own life seems particularly contemporary in an age when the view from the stars is no longer a poetic dream but a reality. In the heaven of the fixed stars, as the poet looks down from his constellation, Gemini, he describes the entire terrestrial surface […] The convulsions of war and cataclysm are contained and almost domesticated by the figure of the threshing floor on which the winnowing is a contained violence with a purpose: the separation of the wheat from the chaff, the traditional biblical figure for judgment.

Longfellow’s threshing floor has thus been transformed into an image that evokes the Last Judgment.

Monte Cassino is in fact named in Dante’s text: “Quel monte a cui Cassino è ne la costa” (Par. 22.37). But what of the signifier aiuola, which the poet employs on two occasions to describe the earth as seen from the heavenly spheres?

Whereas in Georgics 1.178, “area” does indeed signify a threshing floor, Dante’s aiuola derives from the diminutive form in Latin, areola, which the Florentine exile used in Monarchia 3.15.11 to describe the Emperor’s guidance of humanity on earth: “hoc est illud signum ad quod maxime debet intendere curator orbis, qui dicitur romanus Princeps, ut scilicet in areola ista mortalium libere cum pace vivatur.” Richard Kay translates in areola ista mortalium as “in this little abode of mortals.” In his note, Kay points out:

Latin areola is a diminutive form of area, and hence is ‘a little space.’ Dante uses it here in this general, etymological sense, although often both areola and its Italian calc aiuola are used for specific small spaces, e.g. a flowerbed, seedbed, open courtyard, threshing floor, or even a blank space on a page […] Dante probably had in mind Boethius’s description of the inhabitable world as an ‘angustissimum [sic]… area’ Cons. Phil., which Dante echoed in Epist. 7.4.15: ‘in angustissima mundi area.’[7]

We may note in passing that areola occurs twice in the Vulgate’s Song of Songs: 5.13, “genae illius sicut areolae aromatum consitae a pigmentariis […],” and 6.1, “Dilectus meus descendit ad hortum suum ad areolam aromatum […].” We may be sure that Dante was not comparing the earth to a bed of fragrant spices. Nor, pace our translators, did the poet intend to bring to mind something as useful as a threshing floor. Instead, Dante’s message is already manifest in Par. 22.133-138, verses which prepare the way for verse 151, when he tells us that from the eighth heaven:

Col viso ritornai per tutte quante
le sette spere, e vidi questo globo
tal, ch’io sorrisi del suo vil sembiante;
e quel consiglio per migliore approbo
che l’ha per meno; e chi ad altro pensa
chiamar si puote veramente probo.

With antecedents in Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis (3.16), Dante here expresses an attitude typical of the medieval contemptus mundi. The earth’s appearance strikes him as so vile (l. 135) that he smiles in contempt at the passions it arouses. As we learn from the fourth treatise of his Convivio, “la viltade di ciascuna cosa dalla imperfezione di quella si prende […] onde tanto quanto la cosa è perfetta, tanto è in sua natura nobile; quanto imperfetta, tanto vile” (4.11.2; my emphasis)[8]. Vile points to the corruption on earth, as in St. Peter’s diatribe: “o buon principio / a che vil fine convien che tu caschi!” (Par. 27.59-60).

The aiuola over which we fight and wax fierce is therefore a small patch or plot of ground. As Benvenuto wrote (c. 1380), the poet calls the whole earth an areola on account of its exiguity: “totam terram, quam vocat areolam propter eius parvitatem et angustiam, dicens: L’aiuola, idest, areola, parva area, parva platea […].” Or, to quote the version of Benvenuto’s commentary formerly attributed to Stefano Talice da Ricaldone: “Idest aureola, idest parvum spatium terrae[9].” Aiuola and its Latin equivalent areola are found for the first time in works composed during the last years of Dante’s life.[10] It is possible that it first made an appearance in the last pages of Monarchia, where it echoes the appraisal of this world of ours seen as merely a tiny area (angustissima … area) found in a work first studied by Dante after the death of his beloved Beatrice (Conv. 2.12.2), and whose author was placed among the saints by our poet (Par. 10.124-129). As we have seen, in his translation of Monarchia 3.15, Richard Kay remains faithful to the principle that hermeneutics must be based on philology. The vernacular form aiuola has not been discovered in any text before the twenty-second canto of Dante’s Paradiso. The first edition of the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca (Venice, 1612) and the Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana (Turin: UTET, vol. 1, 1961) both record aiuola as a diminutive of aia, which can signify an area or space.[11] Translators and interpreters of the Commedia would do well to follow Kay’s example and perhaps take their cue from Henry Fanshawe Tozier, who translated aiuola in Par. 22.151 as “This little plot of ground.”[12]

Dante’s writings are cited according to the following editions:
Dante Alighieri,. La Commedia secondo l’antica vulgata, a cura di Giorgio Petrocchi, vol. 4: Paradiso, Florence: Le Lettere, 1994.
Dante Alighieri, Convivio, a cura di Franca Brambilla Ageno, vol. 2: Testo, Florence: Le Lettere, 1995.
Dante Alighieri, Monarchia, a cura di Pier Giorgio Ricci, Milan: Arnoldo Mondadori, 1965.
Benvenuto da Imola’s commentary is cited as found in the Dartmouth Dante Database.

[1] Cary, H. F. The Vision or Hell, Purgatory and Paradise of Dante Alighieri. Translated by the Rev. Henry Francis Cary. London: Frederick Warne, s.d., pp. 435 and 455.

[2] DANTE. Translated into English Verse by I. C. Wright. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1859 (fourth edition), pp. 398 and 417.

[3] H. W. Longfellow, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Paradiso. London: George Routledge, 1902, pp. 102 and 121.

[4] Ibid., p. 264.

[5] The Divine Comedy. Translated, with a commentary by Charles S. Singleton. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Paradiso: 2. Commentary, 1975, pp. 369-370.

[6] John Freccero, “Introduction to the Paradiso.” In Dante. The Poetics of Conversion, ed. with an introduction by Rachel Jacoff. Cambridge, Mass. & London: Harvard University Press, 1986, pp. 217-218. This essay was originally published in 1970 as an introduction to John Ciardi’s translation of The Paradiso (New York: New American Library).

[7] Dante’s “Monarchia.” Translated, with a commentary, by Richard Kay. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1998, p. 317, n. 22.

[8] Cf. Guinizzelli’s “Fere lo sol lo fango tutto ’l giorno: vile reman […]” (ll. 31-32 of his celebrated canzone Al cor gentil rempaira sempre amore: see Poeti del Duecento, ed. by Gianfranco Contini, Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, Vol. 2, 1960, p. 462).

[9] La Commedia di Dante Alighieri, col commento inedito di Stefano Talice da Ricaldone, ed. by Vincenzo Promis and Carlo Negroni, Milan: Hoepli, 1888 (second edition), vol. 3, ad loc. Cf. Benvenuto’s annotation with regard to Par.27.85-87: “il sito di questa aiuola, idest, terrae, quam autor vocat aureolam, idest, parvam aream […].”

[10] The dating of both Monarchia and Paradiso remains problematic. Nevertheless, Petrocchi, Ricci, and Kay all attribute the Latin treatise to 1317-18 (while Padoan ascribes it to Dante’s final years in Ravenna).

[11] Salvatore Battaglia, Grande Dizionario della Lingua Italiana. Turin: UTET, vol. 1, 1961, ad loc. “3. Ant. Area, spazio: ‘appena agli uomini per abitare aia strettissima rimarrà.’” This quotation is taken from Alberto della Piagentina’s translation (composed between 1322 and 1332) of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. The Opera del Vocabolario Italiano database records Par. 22.151 as the first text to include the word aiuola.

[12] Cf. H. F. Tozer, An English Commentary on Dante’s “Divina Commedia.” Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1901, p. 557: “aiuola: ‘little plot of ground’; here the word is applied in contempt to the earth.” Tozer’s translation of the Commedia was published three years later: Dante’s “Divina Commedia.” Translated into English Prose by the Rev. H. F. Tozer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904 (see pp. 399 for his translation of Par. 22.151). In his Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus, ed. by C. Van De Kieft (Leiden-New York-Köln: Brill, 1997, p. 59), J. F. Niermeyer gives four definitions of area: the second is “rural plot occupied by a small farmhouse and farmyard or intended to build one on it”; the last is “4. aire à battre le blé – thrashing-floor [sic].” Niermeyer does not record the diminutive areola. In French, the word for threshing floor, aire, can also mean an exiguous, narrow space, as in Paul Valéry’s Variations III: “Dans une aire aussi restreinte.” Cf. Sapegno’s note: “L’aiuola … foci: la terra abitata […] mi si scoprí tutta: poco piú che un punto nell’immensa distesa degli spazi celesti; eppure per quel punto gli uomini si combattono fra di loro con tanta ferocia!” (Dante Alighieri, La Divina Commedia, a cura di Natalino Sapegno. Milan-Naples: Ricciardi, 1957, p. 1058).