Dante's Two Beloveds

Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the "Divine Comedy"

Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Dante's Two Beloveds
    Book Description:

    Re-examining key passages in Dante's oeuvre in the light of the crucial issue of moral choice, this book provides a new thematic framework for interpreting theDivine Comedy. Olivia Holmes shows how Dante articulated the relationship between the human and the divine as an erotic choice between two attractive women-Beatrice and the "other woman." Investigating the traditions and archetypes that contributed to the formation of Dante's two beloveds, Holmes shows how Dante brilliantly overlaid and combined these paradigms in his poem. In doing so he re-imagined the two women as not merely oppositional condensations of apparently conflicting cultural traditions but also complementary versions of the same. This visionary insight sheds new light on Dante's corpus and on the essential paradox at the poem's heart: the unabashed eroticism of Dante's turn away from the earthly in favor of the divine.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15253-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    The protagonist of Dante Alighieri’sDivina Commediabegins his journey by wandering from the straight way, and this error is implicitly figured both here and in some of his other works as a flirtation with a woman other than Beatrice, the “gentil donna” ofVita nova24.2,¹ whom he allegorizes as Lady Philosophy inConvivio2.12. The pilgrim’s return to moral righteousness and perfect happiness is dramatically staged in his reunion with his original beloved Beatrice at the top of the mountain of Purgatory (Purgatorio30–31). This book investigates the numerous traditions and archetypes that contributed to the formation...

  5. 1 Two Ways and Two Ladies
    (pp. 13-34)

    At the beginning of theCommedia, the character Dante, already in the middle of his life’s journey, has lost his way in a dark wood. After centuries of commentary, there can be little doubt that the straight way, now lost, represents the virtuous life that leads to God and eternal salvation and that, in stepping off the direct route, the pilgrim has made his journey to Heaven more roundabout and arduous. As the poet explains in his treatiseConvivio, the supreme desire of every created thing is to return to its maker, but we may lose the path through error:...

  6. 2 Wisdom and Folly; Lady Philosophy and the Sirens
    (pp. 35-67)

    When Beatrice descends to meet her lover at the top of the mountain of Purgatory, she appears to him wearing a “candido vel cinta d’uliva” (white veil girt with olive;Purg. 30.31), or “le fronde di Minerva” (Minerva’s foliage;Purg. 30.68). The Trecento commentator Benvenuto da Imola explains the detail of Beatrice’s olive crown as meaning that she stands for Sapientia (Wisdom), for the olive tree was dedicated to Minerva (4:210; later in his gloss on this canto, he enumerates various reasons why the olive is associated with wisdom). Dante himself identifies Minerva or Pallas Athena as the goddess of...

  7. 3 Romance Narratives of Two Women
    (pp. 68-98)

    When Dante-the-pilgrim is beset with fears inInferno2 and hesitates to embark on his voyage of salvation, Virgilio comforts him by recounting Beatrice’s tearful descent into Limbo on her lover’s behalf. “Oh pietosa colei che mi soccorse!” (Oh full of pity she who has helped me!;Inf. 2.133), Dante cries out with gratitude before setting out on his arduous journey back to her. The beloved whom he expects finally to encounter ispietosaor compassionate, one who—unlike most of the ladies of the vernacular lyric tradition—reciprocates her suitor’s feelings and willingly requites his desires. Virgilio encourages him...

  8. 4 Ulysses at the Crossroads
    (pp. 99-118)

    In the middle of his life’s journey, Dante’s pilgrim steps off the path and loses his way. As has already been made abundantly clear, this loss is also the disappearance of Beatrice, her death as it is conveyed in Dante’s youthful memoir, theVita nova, and the dark wood into which he wanders is also his dalliance with other women andsimulacra, false images of good. But Beatrice’s death is a fortunate fall, as it turns out: the protagonist loses her only to recover her again in the Earthly Paradise; she dies in order to gain, and to bring, eternal...

  9. 5 Jerusalem and Babylon: Brides, Widows, and Whores
    (pp. 119-156)

    We keep circling back to theCommedia’s dramatic core, the moment in the sacred pageant revealed to Dante-the-pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise when Beatrice alights on the triumphal car drawn by the griffin and Virgilio vanishes. Commentators’ allegorical readings of the numerous details of the mountaintop pageant are complex and conflicting. Most critics, both early and modern, understand the two-wheeled chariot to represent the Church, for instance, and the griffin, half eagle and half lion, to represent Christ in His two natures, divine and human. Some differ, however, taking the two-wheeled chariot as a symbol for Rome (see Davis, “Rome...

  10. 6 The “Little While”: Departure and Return
    (pp. 157-193)

    In the final canto ofPurgatorio, Beatrice solemnly quotes Jesus’ cryptic warning to his disciples in John 16 of his impending crucifixion and resurrection, “Modicum, et non videbitis me; / et iterum … / modicum, et vos videbitis me” (A little while, and now you shall not see me; and again … a little while, and you shall see me;Purg. 33.10–12). At the most literal level of the fiction, it is not Beatrice who will soon vanish and return, but the first-person protagonist who must shortly (after the next canticle) go back to earth, where he will no...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 194-200)

    In theCommedia, Dante depicts the relationship between the human and the divine and the choices made by the individual human will in terms of the traditional (Virgilian and Augustinian) metaphorics of a journey: good and evil are diverging roads leading to different otherworldly destinations. The objective of this book has been to delineate another complementary framework for understanding Dante’s depiction of the consequences of free will in terms, rather, of a choice between two attractive women: one a whore who offers immediate gratification, “’l mondo presente [che] disvia,” the present world that goes—and leads—astray (Purg. 16.82), and...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 201-244)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 245-264)
  14. Index
    (pp. 265-274)