Matthew Collins
(Harvard University)
7 February, 2016

Virgil’s Digression and Dante’s Comedìa

The opening tercet of Inferno XXI has been the object of much unresolved speculation regarding what the pilgrim and Virgil specifically said as they passed “di ponte in ponte” (v. 1) from the fourth to the fifth and central bolgia in hell’s eighth circle. I would like to propose a reading which considers not the missing content itself, but the reason Dante created such a void. To pursue an argument regarding these unrecorded words is not entirely “vanità sostanziale,”[1] especially given that they are referenced at a moment as critical as the second of two occasions when Dante refers to his work as his comedìa.[2] While seeking the precise content of this exchange is likely a vain pursuit, asking why this conversation is omitted, rather than what has been left out, may lead to a more definitive answer regarding Dante’s purpose in even mentioning these words which his “comedìa cantar non cura” (v. 2). His reason, I would suggest, is in line with the well covered topic that is Dante’s manipulative use of Virgil, especially his imperfections and errors, in order to bolster his own status as a poet and even an author. As Albert Ascoli has shown, Virgil went from being Dante’s maestro and autore (Inf. I, 85) to being surpassed by the poet and his fictionalized self as he sought “authority greater than the pagan auctores,[3] and he did so even while drawing from the very authority he sought to surpass. By applying this line of argument and by considering aspects of Inferno XX and the co-numerary cantos in Purgatorio and Paradiso as critical contextualization, one may arrive at a clearer understanding of Inferno XXI’s opening tercet and the paraleptic gesture contained therein.

            By Inferno XX, both the poet by arrangement and the pilgrim by word had highlighted a significant moment in which Virgil’s authority proved at least partially defective. At the walls of Dis, Virgil had failed to pass through the gates without assistance. Beyond the obvious fact that the poet had himself arranged this occurrence, he was also sure to emphasize Virgil’s shame and concern at this significant juncture: “Li occhi a la terra e le ciglia avea rase/ d’ogne baldanza” (VIII, 118-119). The pilgrim later mentioned this incident once again, indicating Virgil’s failure, in the midst of praise no less:

            I’ cominciai: “Maestro, tu che vinci

            tutte le cose, fuor che ‘ demon duri

            ch’a l’intrar de la porta incontra uscinci…” (Inf. XIV, 43-46)

Thus the pilgrim damned Virgil with not faint but partial praise, implying a limitation of authority in his actions. It is in Inferno XX and the start of XXI that both the pilgrim and the poet more directly imply that Virgil’s words, too, lack full authority, even as they are used to generate Dante’s implicitly self-asserted authoritative text. While standing amidst the diviners in the fourth bolgia, Virgil, after correcting Dante for having pity on the damned souls, begins to direct his gaze at various individuals. Upon arriving at the figure of Manto, however, he enters into a long digression on the geographical and historical place of his hometown of Mantua (vv. 58-99)— one which contradicts the history of Mantua’s founding that he had written in his own poem. Upon the completion of Virgil’s digression, the pilgrim replies:

            E io: “Maestro i tuoi ragionamenti

            mi son sì certi e prendon sì mia fede,

            che li altri mi sarien carboni spenti.” (Inf. XX, 100-102)

At the center of this statement is conscious irony on Dante’s part: the ragionamenti of li altri are none other than those of the historical Virgil in his own poem and those who accepted and followed his narrative, most notably Servius. The pilgrim then puts Virgil back on task with a request:

            Ma dimmi, de la gente che procede,

            se tu ne vedi alcun degno di nota;

            ché solo a ciò la mia mente rifiede. (vv. 103-105)

The canto concludes with Virgil speaking to the pilgrim while they continue on (“Sì mi parlava, e andavamo introcque” v. 130). What then did they speak of, as they made their way from the fourth to the fifth bolgia, as referenced in the opening tercet of Inferno XXI? It seems likely, given the fact that the last canto concluded with Virgil doing the talking, and in light of his digression shortly earlier, that Virgil continued to talk— and in a fashion that was as similarly askew as his earlier recorded digression. This time Dante the poet overtly steps in to cut him off, but not without noting that the words spoken, left otherwise unrecorded, did not contribute to his own poem: what Virgil the guide said were things, according to Dante the poet, “che la mia comedìa … non cura” (XXI, 2). We may find ourselves more confident in asserting cause than content, perhaps because the purpose of this record precisely is to further indicate shifts in the authorial relations between Dante and Virgil. What was said truly doesn’t matter here because Virgil, on this occasion, spoke of something which did not add to the writing of Dante’s comedìa. And this is perhaps why Dante mentioned the exchange without recording it: while it is unquestionably true that Virgil played an additive role for Dante in the writing of his poem, he seems to suggest here that this was true only to a certain extent. In the same breath that Dante re-asserted his work as a comedìa, a choice of title charged with implications that in the words of Zygmunt Barański “encapsulate the whole creative and ideological power of his work,”[4] he cast himself as one even able to rein in the words of this great Roman poet.

            Teodolinda Barolini also refers to Virgil’s extended monologue in fourteen tercets of Inferno XX as a digression, and she argues that it could be seen as Dante’s revision of Aeneid X.[5] This would not be the first time Dante the poet via the very words of Virgil the guide revises the historical Virgil: in none other than the earlier discussed scene at the walls of Dis, Virgil claims with no historical literary basis that he had been there before, conjured by “quella Eritón cruda” (Inferno IX, 23). One could suggest that Virgil the guide was himself conscious of authorial shifts and that he sought to reassert his historical authority through acts of rewriting and amplification—but even so, he was bound to be eclipsed. He was, after all, ultimately at the mercy of Dante the poet’s pen. These elements all add to my present suggestion that Dante was implicitly undermining and supplanting the Latin author, in Inferno IX briefly and more extensively in Inferno XX, a process culminating on one level in the opening tercet of Inferno XXI. It would also indicate that in Inferno XX-XXI Dante was toggling between the fictionalized characters of himself and Virgil and the respective historical poets, with the former pair functioning as precise representatives of the latter. While Virgil the guide digresses and Dante the pilgrim stays on topic, the historical Virgil’s great work is revised by Dante the poet. Robert Hollander has also shown that Dante’s general tendency to treat Virgil’s text reverently while simultaneously and increasingly alluding to it “with a slipperiness that surely might offend a lover of the Aeneid” is well embodied in his handling of Manto (and then Eurypylus, Hollander adds) in Inferno XX.[6] Here Dante is “deliberately distorting his source in order to lodge a criticism of his ‘master and author,’”[7] and the act of putting words into the mouth of the fictional Virgil which essentially cancel the historical Virgil’s text (vv. 97-99) can well be considered “Dante’s assault upon the veracity of pagan texts.”[8] This moment in Inferno XX clearly constitutes an important turning point in the relationship between Dante and Virgil, especially in regards to the authority of their words, and leads perfectly to the opening tercet of Inferno XXI, which implicitly highlights a rift between Virgil’s carboni spentithose recorded in XX and, perhaps, those referenced in but unrecorded in XXI—and Dante’s words.

            It may be worth noting, to suggest a vertical reading from Inferno XX-XXI to Purgatorio XX-XXI in this light, that Virgil speaks not a word in Purgatorio XX.[9] Further, he is mentioned only once in the canto—while following Dante’s movements, rather than vice versa (v. 4)—and in Purgatorio XXI, the need for an additional poet, Statius, emerges. One could thus suggest that Statius arises in a sense from Virgil’s silence, which is generative in its own right, corresponding to the fact that he never wrote the words of the Christian gospel, and yet this gospel was transmitted (according to Dante) to Statius through Virgil’s pagan writings. Of course Statius too is a step, like Virgil, toward Dante’s implicit self-assertion as a greater autore. This vertical reading could be extended to Paradiso XX, which bears another revision of the Roman poet as Dante grants far more importance to Virgil’s Ripheus than Virgil himself did, even placing Ripheus among the saved in a shocking application of predestination, constituting a great transformation of this character by Dante from a dead warrior to an embodiment of deep theological mystery (Paradiso XX, 67-72 and 118-129; Aeneid II, 426-28). Not only did Virgil save Statius according to Dante, Dante claims that Virgil’s own character was saved, and yet Virgil himself was eternally condemned by Dante to Limbo.[10] The fact that the great Roman poet could not reach the heights of his own readers and characters suggests a reversal of guides on an authorial level: Dante, ultimately, is far ahead of Virgil, and he leads aspects of Virgil’s work in different and notably grander directions. Reading across all three twentieth cantos we move from Dante’s revision of Virgil through the guide’s own contradictory words in Inferno to Virgil’s silence in Purgatorio to a more shocking revision of the now surpassed and entirely absent Virgil in Paradiso. This particular theme, I would suggest, finds its summation in Inferno XXI, 1-3: the words of a digressive and revision-prone Virgil are reined in or redirected by Dante the poet in his comedìa.

[1] Davide Conrieri, “Lettura del canto XXI dell’Inferno,” Giornale storico della letterature italiana 158, 1981, p.2.

[2] The other occasion is Inf. XVI, 128

[3] Albert Ascoli, Dante and the Making of the Modern Author Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008, p.4

[4] Zygmunt G. Barański, “Comedìa: Notes on Dante, the Epistle to Cangrande, and Medieval Comedy” Lectura Dantis 8 (1991), 31. Also worthy of mention as another perspective on Dante’s duel declaration of his work as a comedìa (and I would like to thank Francesco Marco Aresu for this reference): Alberto Casadei’s Dante oltre la Commedia. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2013. Casadei suggests that this term, though of course proffer by Dante himself, was not necessarily meant to designate the title of his work, even if it became quite quickly seen as such. Either way, it sends a strong designating message of authority and authorship.

[5] Teodolinda Barolini, “Canto XX: True and False See-ers,” Lectura Dantis: Inferno  Ed. Mandelbaum, A. Oldcorn, C. Ross. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, pp. 281-284.

[6] Robert Hollander, “Dante’s Misreadings of the Aeneid in Inferno 20,” The Poetry of Allusion: Virgil and Ovid in Dantes Commedia, Ed. Rachel Jacoff and Jeffrey T. Schnapp, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991, p.77.

[7] Ibid., 78.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] I am calling to mind here the vertical reading lectures at Cambridge University and the related book, currently in its first volume, by George Corbett and Heather Webb (Eds.) Vertical Readings in Dantes Comedy, Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2015.

[10] This maneuvering of Ripheus also involved the integration of Boethius’ Consolatio; see John A. Scott, “Dante, Boezio e l’enigma di Rifeo [Par. 20],” Studi Danteschi 61, 1989, pp.190-192.