|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
THE CASE OF PIER DELLA VIGNA
Within the last 45 years or so much of the critical activity on Dante's Divine Comedy has been part of what is sometimes called «symbolist» reading, specifically of the «allegorical» kind. The main difference between broadly symbolic and narrowly allegorical lies in the nature of the symbol being discovered, symbolist composition being, as most modern literature tends to be, individually fictional and arbitrary, a superimposition by the writer's imagination on the objective data received through the mind's perception of outside reality, whereas allegorism is based on a collective, religiously and culturally received set of assumptions that the poet uses and fashions but does not literally invent. Admittedly, the Divine Comedy is a model text for this kind of critical exercise, and the fact that its active interpretation is practically restricted to a select group of specialists (small by comparison, say, with the number of Shakespeare's or even Milton's specialists) is simply due to the great difficulty of dealing with such a complex text in a rather out-of-the-way language compared to English or French. Yet what we do with the Divine Comedy is of great import to anyone who is interested in the application of modern critical methodology.
Briefly stated, symbolist or allegorical reading aims to reveal the true meaning behind and below the letter, by digging through the stylistic devices and the linguistic twists that embed the deep motives of the writer, even out of his unique psychological make-up. In the Middle Ages this reading was well grounded in the hermeneutical tradition of interpreting the Bible by discovering its hidden and all-important recurrent references to the Christological figures, from beginning to end.
Many recent critics of the Commedia have been concerned with a method of reading that tends to demonstrate how Dante's representation of the other world is above all consistent with God's will, and therefore his implied judgments of the souls' condition must be absolutely in harmony with their having already been judged for eternity by God. Consequently, these critics believe, anything that by the letter of the poem appears to be in any way admiratory or sympathetic toward a sinner must be a delusion. Everything the souls say or do in Hell must be negative, by the very nature of the place.
This theological preoccupation has become a continuous exercise in disproving the once established readings (e.g. à la De Sanctis) as hopelessly «romantic» and out of tune with the author's orthodox mental framework. Logical and methodologically up-to-date as this revisionism may seem to be, it threatens to become a sort of parti pris that replaces a way of superimposing a modern mentality with another equally or even more arbitrary. I shall choose an episode that has been, like several others, an object of recent reinvestigation in line with the revisionist spirit, namely the canto of Pier della Vigna, and I shall try to show that such a manner of reading does injustice to the letter of the text and subverts it in ways that are more puzzling than convincing.
Before I go into the merits of the case, allow me to sketch out the basic ingredients of the episode's political framework. Medieval politics at the time of Dante hinged on the division into partisans of the Pope, the Guelphs, and partisans of the Emperor, the Ghibellines. Most Italian free communes were naturally allied with the papal party not because of a deep inner conviction but, expediently, because it was a logical way to preserve their jealously guarded independence from the most formidable enemy, namely the emperor, who naturally strove to implement his higher sovereignty over all the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. The most vigorous and able upholder of imperial authority had been Frederick II of the Hohenstaufen house, German by family origin but born, raised, and educated in Italy, who died in 1250 after a long, dynamic career of struggle and outright opposition to the Church. This struggle was being waged while, in the earlier years, the Church was governed by a fierce defender of ecclesiastical rights, the great Pope Innocent III. After having raised Frederick at his own court, Innocent was placed in a condition to condemn him repeatedly by excommunication.
Summarily stated, the traditional interpretation of Inferno XIII has run somewhat as follows. In spite of his strong admiration for the Emperor Frederick II and his policies, Dante, a Guelph by the very nature of his having been a Florentine statesman, could not openly take the defense of Frederick's Ghibelline militancy, also on account of Frederick having lived much of his life in a state of excommunication. Yet he could and did undertake his indirect but effective defense while taking up a matter of crucial import for the emperor's image, namely the case of his «chancellor», Pier della Vigna. The anti-Ghibelline propaganda had been having an easy time with the argument of Piero's fall from power, since it worked both ways in favor of the Guelphs. Piero, the most powerful member of the emperor's chancellery, had been suddenly imprisoned for treachery and had committed suicide while in captivity. Now if he was guilty, the emperor's career had been seriously marred by treachery from his most trusted associate. If innocent, his much-admired master was to be seen as incapable to tell an innocent from a guilty collaborator. A more perverse twist was to be found in the view of Guelph-and-papal-inspired propaganda presented by the Franciscan chronicler Fra Salimbene Adami of Parma, whereby Frederick would have used an absurd calumny in order to seize his minister's property.
But Dante shows Piero as the innocent victim of Envy, the scourge of the courts, «la meretrice che mai da l'ospizio / di Cesare non torse gli occhi putti, / morte comune e de le corti vizio» (64-66) __ just as its counterpart, Avarice, is the specific plague of the ecclesiastical courts. The power of Envy is such that not even Frederick could be immune from its onslaught. In the other world Piero still protests his loyally to his well deserving, incomparable master. This strategy on the part of Dante is all the more effective and impressive in that it is, precisely, indirect, and a signal example of his thoroughly functional handling of his episodic presentation, always with the whole of the poem firmly under control and with the readers subtly led in the wanted direction by having them move from the surface of the episodic motifs to the deep structure and thematic message.1
The problem is compounded by the fact that historical documents seem to indicate that Piero was not innocent, as he protests in Dante's episode, but guilty, if not of outright treason, at least of serious ambivalence in his service, having engaged in protracted self-seeking scheming to the detriment of his master's good name and policies. A probably false charge also implicated him in a plot against the emperor when the latter, after the disaster of 1248, became suspicious and lost confidence in his powerful minister (cf. Anthony Cassell's examination of these documents). We might wonder whether Dante was aware of these facts or allegations, and had direct knowledge of the relevant evidence, as it seems he should have. If so, how could he entertain a serious defense of the unhappy chancellor?
Nevertheless, before we attempt drastic revisions of the way we choose to read distant texts, it is pertinent to inquire into the historical reception of such texts, so that we are aware of our somewhat arrogant (though not necessarily unjustified) presumption that the text was really written for us, at a distance of centuries, since no previous reader was in a position to understand it correctly, i.e., our way. Now it is a fact that all subsequent readers of Dante down to the last third of a century almost unanimously accepted Dante's presentation as one motivated by a strong, though perhaps partly qualified, sympathy and, especially, pity for the great figure of the unhappy chancellor. The Enciclopedia Dantesca (p. 513) mentions a long list of early and later commentators, all unanimous on a basically positive evaluation of Dante's attitude toward Piero, pointing out, in particular, that Dante's «pietà» toward Piero must have been colored by his seeing Piero's predicament as an analogue to Dante's own situation as a tragic, innocent victim of political Envy, in which case Piero would join a group of crucially symbolic personal analogues which includes Romeo di Villanuova, Provenzan Salvani, and others. Among the first, «l'Ottimo Fiorentino», followed by Boccaccio, commented that «Dante sympathized with and pitied Piero both for his profound knowledge and for that personal condition that in many ways corresponded to his own».2
All ancient commentators as well as most modern ones, from Huillard-Breholles to D'Ovidio, Davidsohn, De Stefano, Casertano, and Schneider, did not assume that Dante's interpretation of the events surrounding Piero's fate was unprecedented, since his apparent view of Piero's innocence had been expounded before him by such authoritative historians as Salimbene Adami (Cronica I, 288f.) and Ricordano Malispini (cf. ED IV 512), as well as the later Giovanni Villani (Cronica VI, 22; cf. Cassell 132f. n. 42), who blamed Piero's tragedy on envy.3
All this notwithstanding, Anthony Cassell carries on his revisionist reading by claiming that Dante the Wayfarer may be temporarily taken in by appearances, but that Dante the Poet condemns Piero, consistently with a view of ethical values «from God's eye», as it were, wholly and radically, as not only a suicide out of despair but as an evil minister who acted out of extreme covetousness to the extent of stealing from the poor, enriching himself at the expense of the state, and violently subverting justice. Though radical, this reading cannot be dismissed lightly, buttressed as it is by a wealth of scriptural and patristic citations as well as iconographic witnesses on typical representations of the fate of the avaricious and the treacherous, from Judas on. But aside from the difficulty of reading an episode in a way that was so unexpected for any reader who received the letter of the poem without a specific warning that it meant the opposite of the way it sounded, we have to make a decision on two grounds. First, we must be prepared to accept as plausible, or better, imperative, a sequence of analogies that are, on their faces, hypothetical, and accept them with such determination as to upset the whole first impression of the episode at hand (against Voltaire's warning méfiez-vous du premier mouvement, c'est le bon). Secondly, and more seriously, we must be aware that we do an injustice to the text by overlooking some essential features that are in the way, and which Cassell ignores altogether, to the extent that we must regard his reading as tendentious at best, a partis pris at worst.
Let us begin by looking closely at the text and pay attention to the parts that concern attitudes and judgements. Dante and Virgil find themselves in a strange forest of seemingly dead and unnatural-looking trees. As he will soon find out, these trees harbor the souls of the suicides, who are thus condemned by divine justice to wear for eternity a sub-human shape or, actually, body, since they do not deserve to retain that God-given human shape that they criminally destroyed by their choice and by their own hand. In order to convince Dante of this strange and horrifying situation Virgil exhorts him to break a branch from a large tree, «un gran pruno», and once he has done so the tree immediately speaks out in human voice and rebukes him for being so discourteous __ they would not deserve such treatment from a visitor, the tree says, even if they had been souls of snakes, «anime di serpi». When Dante realizes that the branch he has just broken belongs to a human soul, he stands frozen in fear, «come l'uom che teme» (l.45), which could be attributed to his being the persona of a pilgrim who has not yet grown into the condition of understanding and accepting implicitly the full extent of God's definitive judgement. But Virgil, who is not subject to such limitations, chimes in by addressing Piero in an apologetic tone, calling him, piteously, 'offended soul,' «anima lesa» (47), and adding, quite specifically, that the offensive action he had just caused Dante to undertake displeases him too, «opra ch'a me stesso pesa» (49). Clearly, one does not speak so to a character who is introduced for no other reason than to condemn him and to show just cause for his condemnation. Besides, Piero solemnly swears his innocence («vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede / al mio signor, che fu d'onor sì degno» 74f.), and swearing should seem strange and out of place in the other world, even in the mouth of a damned soul that Dante meant to show as a liar. Indeed we may wonder whether such formal lying is theologically conceivable in the hereafter.
Much more important is, however, the subsequent, courteous entreaty from Virgil himself to Piero, promising him a prompt and very effective redress for the injustice he has just suffered: Dante's report on Piero to the living, on his return to earth, will be such that, in lieu of a formal amend, he will be able to refresh Piero's (good) fame __ «in vece / d'alcuna ammenda, tua fama rinfreschi / nel mondo sù» (52-54). Piero interprets this offer as a positive one, obviously not expecting the visitors to cheat him by reporting unfavorably on him after enticing him so courteously, «col dolce dir» (55). He then goes on with his tale of close, loyal, efficient service to his beloved master. The «new» critics assume that his speech is nothing but deceit, just as Ulysses' «orazion picciola» to his crew will be another masterpiece of deceptive oratory and «fraudulent counseling», but the remainder of the episode will show how, if Piero lies, Dante and Virgil too are victims of that lying, without any caveat to the readers to avoid their being taken in equally easily.
Furthermore, when Piero begs Dante, as he was prompted by Virgil, to restore his good memory among the living, «conforti la memoria mia, che giace / ancor del colpo che invidia le diede» (77f.), Virgil himself does not hesitate to promise satisfaction on behalf of his ward Dante, «Se l'uom ti faccia / liberamente ciò che 'l tuo dir priega» (85f.), thus making himself part and parcel of unashamed lying and deceiving if the new critical interpretations are to be accepted. Dante cannot formulate his promise directly to Piero because, he says, he is overwhelmed by pity («tanta pietà m'accora», 82).
Here again we could turn around the difficulty by assuming that, as has often been done in such cases as that of Francesca da Rimini, Dante feels pity because his «apprenticeship» in the ways of the other world, that is to say, his coming to terms with God's judgements, has not yet ripened, so that his reactions will jibe with God's will only gradually and as he proceeds further in his journey. Perhaps so, but in such a case we would never know how to proceed unless we made a blanket decision to disregard Dante's letter and assume that the meaning is outside of his representation, thus making ourselves the judges instead of the poet.
Dante does nothing without a good reason. What, then, would be the reason and purpose in Piero's protestations of loyalty? Just to add further to the reader's confusion? Piero was driven to his suicide, in Dante's words, by a «disdegnoso gusto» (70) that assimilates him to Romieu de Villeneuve (Par. VI 12 ff.) in the Commedia and, inside and outside the Commedia, to Dante himself in his tragic exile by force of envy and calumny: hence Dante's pity for him, that makes him temporarily unable to continue his conversation with him directly. We have then a pattern of personal correspondences which give a particular dimension to Piero's episode, a dimension that is essential to the Commedia, where Romeo di Villanuova is clearly a poetic counterpart of Dante himself, as far as his public career goes.
The revisionist reading I have discussed presents the further problem of wiping off almost completely the important role of one of Dante's major allegories, Envy, the scourge of the Courts just as its counterpart, Avarice, is the scourge of the Curia. For the letter of Piero's episode presents him explicitly and emphatically as the victim of Envy, as Giovanni Villani also interpreted Piero's tragic ending.
I have mentioned the matter of checking Virgil's expressed attitude toward characters against Dante's own, since it can be objected that the latter are subject to the principle of moral unpreparedness. If Dante can be assumed to require the progressive experience of the journey in order to harmonize with God's judgements, this principle cannot apply to his divinely appointed guide. Now Virgil again is quoted as having genuine respect, sympathy, and admiration for a number of characters who are in Hell, and we see signal cases shortly after the episode of Pier della Vigna. For example, among the Sodomites not only does Brunetto receive clear praise all around, but even Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci, evident cases of pederasty, are treated with great deference by Dante, who would love to step down into the sabbione in order to embrace them, «la mia buona voglia / che di loro abbracciar mi faceva ghiotto». What is more, Dante adds his conviction that Virgil would have consented: «e credo che 'l dottor l'avria sofferto» (Inf. XVI 48, 50f.). Are we to explain this contradiction by assuming that Dante meant to attribute to Virgil, as «human reason», the limitation of being unable to perceive the divine view of things? In this case we would have another element of ambiguity which, so far as the reader is concerned, would be downright confusing and such as to keep him in a predicament of constant diffidence toward the poet. Is this really the mode in which we believe the poet wanted his poem to be read? Do we really want to place Dante in the role of constantly playing tricks on his reader? Yet, precisely this episode of the three Florentine statesmen has recently been subjected to an interpretation whereby, in nonchalant disregard for the evidence of Dante's textual denotations, it is asserted that the sin of pederasty cannot go together with any degree of earnest admiration for these characters' political life, hence Dante must have meant to condemn them as contributing to Florence's political decay following Cacciaguida's generation.4
Canto XV, of the Sodomites, has been, together with Canto XXVI of Ulysses, another one of the favorite cantos for the «revisionists» ever since a very serious but in this case completely misguided Dante scholar, André Pézard, published his ponderous Dante sous la pluie de feu (1950), trying to prove that Brunetto and his companions were not literal sexual sinners but allegorical perverters of nature assigned to Hell for having betrayed their native vernaculars by writing in an alien language __ French for Brunetto, Greek for Priscian, etc. More recently an American historian, Richard Kay, has taken up this cause once again by proposing to read Brunetto as a subverter of nature by his placing of philosophy at the service, not of the empire, but of the free communes like Florence.5 Pézard's much discussed thesis has long been thrown to the side by the better-provided Dante scholars. A similar fate has befallen a similar hypothesis by Anna Granville Hatcher to the effect that Ulysses and Diomed are not punished in their bolgia as evil counselors on account of the device of the Trojan horse but for some other, unspecified sin, possibly, on the part of Ulysses, the betrayal of his companions by the lying false rhetoric of the «orazion picciola».
Several scholars had hypothesized that Ulysses' famous speech to his crew was presented by Dante as a lie, deserving of punishment in the eyes of God. Indeed, the thesis of Ulysses' sinfulness as both a foolhardy voyager and an orator of «estrema furberia» (fandi fictor) has been shared by a host of other critics, including some of notable expertise, among whom Rocco Montano and Giorgio Padoan (but on the other side see especially Giovanni Getto, Mario Fubini, and Umberto Bosco), while others still have chosen to stress a more historically plausible sense of desmesure or, more precisely, fol hardiment in the absurd voyage into the «other world». Cassell apparently goes further than any other: for him the whole Ulysses episode is nothing but the exposure of a dissembling trickster and «hypocrite» (see his Ch. 7). Generations of inspired readers, including some of the greatest western writers, were then all in the wrong.
All of the preceding is not to say that we should go on reading Dante as De Sanctis had read him. Far from it. A most relevant case of a pertinent revision of the Romantic reading of the Commedia, which I want to give as an example of the merits of a well-advised allegorical interpretation, is perhaps that of the episode of Francesca da Rimini. Dealing with this episode Renato Poggioli (1957), among others, ably showed the subtle authorial intention of indicting the sinful, no-issue courtly code of love, implicitly contrasted with Dante's own, divinely-oriented discovery of a «new» kind of love, carrier of all the sublime values of the human predicament.6
This brings me to one of the most positive developments of allegorical interpretation, concerning the reading of the two crucial allegories of the Commedia, namely the figures of Dante's two guides, Virgil and Beatrice. Somewhat ironically, modern allegorism has reduced rather than enlarged the allegories of these two figures and has come to perceive them rather as typological figurae than as allegories. This in the sense of the increasing realization of their basic humanity and individuality, whereas they had traditionally been read as essentially allegories of Reason and the Empire (Virgil) and Revelation, Theology, Grace, and the Church (Beatrice). See, e.g., Francesco Mazzoni's lectura of Paradiso XXXI and Kenelm Foster's agreeing with his conclusions.7 Virgil embodies wisdom as the historical individual poetic personality that came to «typify» and symbolize Dante's dedication to poetry and reason. In a different but similar way Beatrice is a real, living person who embodies theology because in Dante's whole career she incarnated Dante's own longing for the divine and the supernatural. This is indeed Dante's greatest and unique poetic achievement and his true poetic orthodoxy.*
1 cf. Scaglione, «Sonata Form and Functional Strategy in the Commedia», in Essays in Memory of A. B. Ferruolo, Gian Paolo Biasin, Albert N. Mancini, and Nicolas J. Perella eds. (Roma: Società Editrice Napoletana, 1985), pp. 13-26.
2 «per cagione della scienza che fu in Piero delle Vigne, e che concordò in lui in più condizioni, l'autore li portò pietade». ED IV 513.
3 Cf. Anthony K. Cassell, Dante's Fearful Art of Justice (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984), Ch. 3 «Pier della Vigna», pp. 32-42 and Ch. 4 «Avarice and Suicide», pp. 43-56. For the thesis of Piero's innocence, cf. (Jean Louis) Alphonse Huillard-Breholles, Vie et correspondanse de Pierre de la Vigne (Paris: H. Plon, 1865); Francesco D'Ovidio, «Il canto di Pier della Vigna», Nuovi studi danteschi. Ugolino, Pier della Vigna, i simoniaci, e discussioni varie (Milano: U. Hoepli, 1907); Antonio Casertano, Un oscuro dramma politico del secolo XIII (Pietro della Vigna) (Roma: Libreria del Littorio, 1928); Antonino De Stefano, La cultura alla corte di Federico II imperatore (Palermo: F. Ciuni, 1938; Bologna Zanichelli, 1950); Friedrich Richard Schneider, «Kaiser Friedrich II und Peter von Vinea im Urteil Dantes», Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 18 (1948), pp. 230ff. For earlier statements of Piero's culpability, cf. Karl Hampe, Deutsche Kaisergeschichte in der Zeit der Salier und Staufer (Leipzig, 1909), Eng. trans. of 11th ed. Germany under the Salian and Hohenstauffen Emperors (Totowa NJ: Rowman & Littlefield, 1973); Ernst H. Kantorowicz Kaiser Friedrich der Zweite (Berlin: G. Bondi, 1927-31; Dusseldorf: H. Kupper, 1963, 2 vols.); Id., Frederick the Second, 1194-1250, trans. E. O. Lorimer (London, Constable and New York: R. R. Smith, 1931); Friedrich Baethgen, «Dante und Peter de Vinea» (1955), Medievalia II (Stuttgart: Hersemann, 1960), pp. 423-441; William A. Stephany, «Pier della Vigna's Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: The 'Eulogy' of Frederick II and Inferno 13», Traditio 38 (1982-1983), pp. 193-212; and Joan M. Ferrante, The Political Vision of the Divine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984), esp. pp. 107f, 156-58, 370f. For some of the more significant recent readings of Inferno XIII see: Leonardo Olschki, «Dante and Petrus de Vinea» Romanic Review 31 (1940), pp. 105-111; Leo Spitzer, «Speech and Language in Inferno XIII» (first in Italica 1942), Romanische Literaturstudien (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1959), pp. 544-568; Luigi Pietrobono, Il canto XIII dell'Inferno (Torino: SEI, 1962); Ettore Bonora, «Il canto XIII dell'Inferno», Cultura e Scuola 4 (1965), pp. 446-454; Ettore Paratore, «Analisi retorica del canto di Pier delle Vigne» (1965), in Tradizione e struttura in Dante (Firenze: G. C. Sansoni, 1968), pp. 168-220; Etienne Gilson, «Poésie et théologie dans la Divine Comédie», Atti del Congresso Internazionale di Studi Danteschi (Firenze: Sansoni, 1965), pp. 213-219; Umberto Bosco, «Il canto dei suicidi», in Dante vicino. Contributi e letture (Caltanissetta-Roma: Sciascia, 1966), pp. 255-273; Ignazio Baldelli, «Il canto XIII dell'Inferno», Nuove letture dantesche II (Roma: Casa di Dante, 1968), pp. 33-45; Emilio Bigi, «Pietro della Vigna», Enciclopedia Dantesca, IV (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1973), pp. 511-516.
4 cf. for this thesis of Guido Guerra, Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, and Jacopo Rusticucci being «bad» politicians in Dante's eyes, Silvio Pasquazi, Il Canto XVI dell'Inferno, «Lectura Dantis Scaligera» (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1961), pp. 5-34; Paolo Brezzi, Il Canto XVI dell'Inferno (Roma: Bonacci, 1974), then as «Lectura Dantis Romana» (Roma: Casa di Dante - Bonacci, 1977), and again as «Tre personaggi fiorentini (Inf. XVI)» in Brezzi, Letture dantesche di argomento storico-politico (Napoli: Ferraro, 1983), pp. 9-26; Joan M. Ferrante, op. cit. (1984), p. 165. For the opposite view, see Pietro Santini, «Sui Fiorentini 'che fur sì degni'», Studi danteschi 6 (1923), pp. 25-44: see p. 28; Aldo Vallone, Il canto XVI dell'Inferno, «Lectura Dantis Romana» (Roma Casa di Dante - S.E.I., 1959), then in Vallone, Studi su Dante medievale (Firenze: Olschki, 1965), pp. l79-205: see p. 184; and Aleardo Sacchetto, «Il canto dei tre fiorentini», Dieci letture dantesche (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1960), pp. 25-56: see p. 39.
5 Richard Kay, first in Medieval Studies 31 (1969), 262-286, then in Dante's Swift and Strong. Essays on Inferno XV (Lawrence, KA.: The Regents Press of Kansas, 1978).
6 «Tragedy or Romance? A Reading of the Paolo e Francesca Episode in Dante's Inferno», PMLA 75 (June 1957), 313-358, then in R. Poggioli, The Spirit of the Letter, Essays in European Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965), pp. 50-102.
7 Foster in Enciclopedia Dantesca, V. s.v. «Teologia», p. 568, with reference to Mazzoni, «Il canto XXXI del Purgatorio», in Lectura Dantis Scaligera, II:II Purgatorio (Firenze: Le Monnier, 1960), pp. 1139-1184. Cf. A. Vàrvaro, Letterature romanze, p. 56, citing E. Auerbach, Typologische Motive in der mittelalterlichen Literatur (Krefeld: Scherpe, 1953), p. 13: «Virgil or Beatrice are not allegories of something, but 'figures,' historical persons, who realize [in the poem] something that was prefigured in their earthly existence» (like in the Biblical figures) (trans. mine).
*Lectura Dantis delivered in Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia on October 24, 1987.