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Reading Dante

Reading Dante

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 312
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  • Book Info
    Reading Dante
    Book Description:

    A towering figure in world literature, Dante wrote his great epic poemCommediain the early fourteenth century. The work gained universal acclaim and came to be known asLa Divina Commedia, orThe Divine Comedy. Giuseppe Mazzotta brings Dante and his masterpiece to life in this exploration of the man, his cultural milieu, and his endlessly fascinating works.

    Based on Mazzotta's highly popular Yale course, this book offers a critical reading ofThe Divine Comedyand selected other works by Dante. Through an analysis of Dante's autobiographicalVita nuova, Mazzotta establishes the poetic and political circumstances ofThe Divine Comedy. He situates the three sections of the poem-Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise-within the intellectual and social context of the late Middle Ages, and he explores the political, philosophical, and theological topics with which Dante was particularly concerned.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19921-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Lectio Brevis
    (pp. 1-5)

    I’d like to begin with a brief introduction, what was once called alectio brevisin the classroom setting, to the contents of this book and those of Dante’s texts and to the context of these contents—the context within which Dante thrives, grows, and writes his poem, a poem that, as you know, is called theDivine Comedy.First of all, the well-known title I just mentioned is not actually the title that Dante gives to his poem. Dante calls the poem simply “comedy.” “Divine” is the epithet that readers throughout the centuries have assigned to it, to indicate...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Vita Nuova
    (pp. 6-22)

    Dante’s first work was theVita nova,ornuova.I could say that it was his first finished work, but in a way it’s not finished; it’s a deliberately unfinished work. Many of Dante’s works remain unfinished. He interrupts them, as he breaks off and decides to move on to other projects. This is the case with the philosophicalConvivio(Banquet). It is true for his text on language, theDe vulgari eloquentia(On Eloquence in the Vernacular). And it is also true, in a way, with theVita nuova.The text ends with a vision, but we don’t know...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Inferno 1–4
    (pp. 23-37)

    Before beginning our exploration ofInferno,let me say a few things about the poem in general, the structure of the poem, and then we can get into the first four cantos. In my preface, I mentioned the title of the poem. We refer to the poem as theDivine Comedy,but it should be justComedy.That’s what Dante called it, and he called itComedyfor a number of reasons. The first reason is that it ends with happiness. It’s a story that begins with disorder, a catastrophe if you wish; the pilgrim is lost in the woods...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Inferno 5–7
    (pp. 38-51)

    The drama that unfolds in Canto 5, ostensibly a drama of desire, stems directly from the crisis in the pilgrim’s mind in Canto 4 ofInferno.In what way? It is as if the experience of hubris, the celebration of one’s own power and prowess as a poet, now has to confront the consequences of that claim. Dante will come literally face to face with a reader of his poetry, one who understands his poetry in a way that was not necessarily the one intended by its author, one of the most famous women in literature: Francesca. But before we...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Inferno 9–11
    (pp. 52-65)

    Now Dante and Virgil are moving, and we with them, away from the area of incontinence and toward the gates of the city of Dis, where the pilgrim experiences a serious impediment, an impasse. He cannot go any farther. The guidance of Virgil fails him, and we are going to examine why it fails him along with the problem that the pilgrim will have to solve.

    Once he is within the city of Dis in Canto 9, the first sinners he meets are the heretics, heresiarchs, chief among whom is Epicurus, the Epicureans, and already it is possible to establish...

  9. CHAPTER 6 Inferno 12–16
    (pp. 66-77)

    From Canto 12 to Canto 16 we are still in the middle region of Hell. We are in the area of violence, or as Dante also calls it, of bestiality, between the area of incontinence, the subject of the last few chapters, and that of malice. What I want to draw your attention to first is the fact that Dante’s presiding symbols in this area are all hybrid figures: the Minotaur and the Centaurs in Canto 12; the Harpies, the filthy, foul monsters with the faces of women devouring the foliage and the trees, in Canto 13; and there are...

  10. CHAPTER 7 Inferno 17–26
    (pp. 78-91)

    Just as Dante jumps onto the back of Geryon in Canto 16, so too must we make some leaps as we proceed farther into the depths of Dante’s Hell. I’ll make brief mention of Canto 17, which is an extraordinary canto. It’s the only time that Virgil leaves Dante alone, and Dante has to meet the usurers without any guidance. It is as if he had to discover by himself and by his own powers what those temptations are and what the implications of usury would be for him. Let me offer a biographical resonance, in the sense that not...

  11. CHAPTER 8 Inferno 27–29
    (pp. 92-102)

    We turn now to Canto 27, which really ought to be read in conjunction with Canto 26, because here we have what I would call a countermyth to the story of Ulysses. There is a contraction of focus; there’s even a revision of the claims of epic grandeur that we have in Canto 26. Dante meets and becomes the interlocutor of Guido da Montefeltro, an extraordinary figure, a military and political leader who experienced a conversion. He became a Franciscan friar, and Pope Boniface VIII, whose name you may recall, summoned him. The pope was not someone that Dante really...

  12. CHAPTER 9 Inferno 30–34
    (pp. 103-115)

    As we conclude withInferno,I’ll be talking about Dante’s tragic mode at the bottom of Hell. This tragic representation is a difficult enterprise, considering that this is a comedy. But that difficulty is somewhat mitigated because the tragic here is not an ending, not a final vision, but part of a larger discourse that Dante will develop, which is ultimately comical. He really has a comical vision, even of the divinity and certainly of the cosmos. There is a redemptive, happy, harmonious sense to the whole.

    Another difficulty is that within the Christian vision that shapes Dante’s poem, it’s...

  13. CHAPTER 10 Purgatorio 1–2
    (pp. 116-129)

    Purgatorio,a word meaning “place of cleansing or purification,” is the middle section of Dante’s poem. It is a place of transition between the world of Hell and all the evil that we have witnessed and the realm of glory that Paradise is going to be. As an idea, the way Dante understands it, Purgatory is part of human geography. There are two hemispheres in medieval geography: the northern hemisphere, which is the one we inhabit, and the southern hemisphere, where we find the island of Purgatory. As discussed in the last chapter, Purgatory came into existence as Lucifer fell,...

  14. CHAPTER 11 Purgatorio 5–10
    (pp. 130-142)

    I have been focusing on a Dante turned to the future, a Dante who thinks and reflects on hope. Nothing else really matters because everything else can only be understood as part of the future, even when it’s past, with the logical underlying assumption that that which is past was once the future, the only reality of time. Dante understands inPurgatoriohow time moves in one direction, which is future-oriented, though it turns out to be a return to the Garden of Eden as well.

    In Canto 5, however, Dante meets souls who bring to the fore for him...

  15. CHAPTER 12 Purgatorio 11–17
    (pp. 143-151)

    Dante’s problem in Canto 10 ofPurgatoriostems from the fact that he is initially a spectator of works of art, which he seems to have no difficulty understanding. He’s witnessing what he calls visible speech, synesthesia,visibile parlarein Italian, but this is God’s art and it has a precise meaning that Dante has no trouble comprehending or enjoying. But then he has to be involved. He has to show at least some compassion to and some selfrecognition in the penitent souls who are under these huge weights that they carry. But he cannot do it. He still has...

  16. CHAPTER 13 Purgatorio 18–22
    (pp. 152-163)

    Dante has finished one stage in his movement toward self-knowledge and knowledge of the world, and in Canto 18, we’re moving into a different moral realm, toward what Dante and medieval theorists of vices callacedia. Acediais a Latin term, which in English we can describe as a sort of despondency, indecisiveness, sluggishness, or sloth. In a sense it’s a parody or inversion of contemplation, tied to a sense of loss of the outside world. It describes the condition of the mind that has found itself indifferent to objects of desire, which have lost their consistency, their attractiveness, their...

  17. CHAPTER 14 Purgatorio 24–26
    (pp. 164-168)

    The encounter with Dante’s own friend Forese Donati among the gluttonous sinners in Canto 23 signals a shift in the articulation of the literary segment that had begun with the recognition of Statius and Virgil. Poetry will continue to figure centrally, but Dante brackets the classical paradigm of literary history (Virgil/Statius). Virgil’s conception of the “generosity” of poetry will remain a standard against which modern versions will be measured, but the focus shifts to Dante’s own role and place in contemporary poetic history and takes on an autobiographical coloring. The moral landscape ofPurgatorio24 is characterized by the expiation...

  18. CHAPTER 15 Purgatorio 27–33
    (pp. 169-180)

    With Canto 26, the purgation of the pilgrim is complete. He has been going through the various stages of Purgatory, from pride to lust. In Canto 27, he crosses a wall of fire, so that he can be cleansed completely of all the stains that may be residual on his soul and thereby approach and enter the Garden of Eden. Canto 27 comes to a close with a passage that contains what are the last words that Virgil will speak. In fact, until Beatrice begins guiding him, the pilgrim will be morally on his own, and there is a very...

  19. CHAPTER 16 Paradiso 1–2
    (pp. 181-190)

    Now we move beyond the earthly paradise intoParadiso.As we read the third canticle, we find that Dante uses a Ptolemaic structure of the cosmos. For him, as for Ptolemy, the earth is at the center of the universe—unmoved, immobile—and there are seven planets that circle around it: the moon is thought of as a planet, Mercury, the sun (also thought of as a planet), Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond that there is the heaven of the so-called fixed stars, the Prime Mover in the ninth sphere, and beyond that the Empyrean, the heaven of fire....

  20. CHAPTER 17 Paradiso 3–10
    (pp. 191-203)

    InParadiso3, Dante meets two women, the empress Constance (the irony of the name is a little bit obvious among the inconstant spirits) and Piccarda, who had joined a cloister and taken the name of Sister Constance, as well. She was later forced to leave the cloister on account of her brother Corso Donati’s political maneuvers, however. He wanted her married to an ally of his.

    In Canto 4, Dante returns to this issue, which is really the issue of the will. What is the will? How can somebody else’s force on me compel me to do things for...

  21. CHAPTER 18 Paradiso 11–12
    (pp. 204-214)

    Canto 10, discussed in the last chapter, leads quite naturally into Cantos 11 and 12. To begin to explore these latter two cantos, let’s look at the end of Canto 12, where we meet Bonaventure, who is a Franciscan, a member of one of the orders of Francis. One trait that theologically distinguishes the Franciscans is that they believe in the priority of will and love in the act of knowledge. The Dominicans, by contrast, or neo-Aristotelians like Aquinas believe in the priority of the intellect in the apprehension of the world. The Dominicans were founded with the explicit mandate...

  22. CHAPTER 19 Paradiso 15–17
    (pp. 215-225)

    As we reach the midpoint ofParadiso,Cantos 15–17, we move into the heaven of Mars, which is, as you likely know, named for the god of war, and it is also the heaven of music. Dante links Mars and music out of the belief that harmony is the meeting point of discordant elements, a concord reached through discord. The discordant elements can be different sounds, or they can be the passions within us that need tempering. Canto 15 can be read in conjunction with Canto 15 ofInferno.Here Dante encounters his ancestor, Cacciaguida, and so inevitably the...

  23. CHAPTER 20 Paradiso 18–22
    (pp. 226-236)

    In Canto 18 Dante is initially still in the heaven of Mars. There he lists a number of warriors, souls who are heroic figures like Cacciaguida. He mentions the biblical figures Joshua and Judas Maccabeus and then he names several medieval figures. First in line is Charlemagne, as Dante is clearly retrospectively justifying the whole issue of the Crusades in which Cacciaguida took part. It can really be brought back to Charlemagne’s experience in France and Spain against the Muslims. Of course he also names Charlemagne’s paladin, the great, Achilles-like, seemingly invulnerable Roland, who died at Roncevaux because of the...

  24. CHAPTER 21 Paradiso 24–26
    (pp. 237-247)

    Now we are going to look at the three cantos in the eighth sphere of Dante’s cosmos, the heaven of the fixed stars. We are beyond the planets, in a sphere where Dante discusses the three theological virtues—so called to distinguish them from the four cardinal virtues that Christians share with the classical tradition, fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice—of faith, hope, and love (or charity). These are the virtues that deal with the understanding of the divine; they open up this horizon of speculations about the language of God, the way God speaks to us, and the way...

  25. CHAPTER 22 Paradiso 27–29
    (pp. 248-257)

    In Cantos 27, 28, and 29 ofParadiso,Dante constructs and puts forth a theory of creation and cosmology, which are not quite the same thing. Beatrice explains the shape of the cosmos, a very difficult task, and Dante’s dealing with two forms of the universe, a spiritual one and a physical one. Though they are not identical, they are not really all that distinct. There is a very tenuous, thin line separating the two of them.

    Where are we, first of all? We are somewhere in the celestial spheres. Dante has now gone past the heaven of the fixed...

  26. CHAPTER 23 Paradiso 30–33
    (pp. 258-270)

    In the last chapter, we saw the context of Dante’s experience, the way he moves in the cosmos, the tale he’s telling about this extraordinary experience he has had. He described the materiality and the spirituality of two hemispheres placed in one universe, with the Empyrean as the threshold and limit of the physical cosmos, the way of entering into the spiritual cosmos. Now, Dante moves straight into the Empyrean. This is the end of the road for him. Here there will be a changing of the guard. How is Dante going to say farewell to Beatrice? For the role...

  27. Notes
    (pp. 271-280)
  28. Index
    (pp. 281-293)