|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
THE VILLANELLO (INFERNO XXIV 1-15)
As an introduction to what essentially is a reinterpretation of the ouverture to canto XXIV of the Inferno, I would like to invite you to review with me here briefly a well known characteristic of Dante's narrative art. This characteristic or «constant» of the text is in part responsible for the impression, reported by good readers of Dante for over six-hundred years, of a close-knit unity of the text in its kaleidoscopic variety of fast-changing topics; the impression of a secret coherence, of invisible transversal threads holding together vast segments of the text, united in turn among themselves by still other ties and bonds.
I am of course referring to what may be called the harmony, the «concinnity» of Dante's imagery. An image evoking, for instance, the barking of a dog, in Dante extends itself to color acoustically, if I may say so, the text, sometimes well before and sometimes long after the initial occasion for the image. Dante's imaged word, to coin a term, seems to have a foreglow, announcing it, and an afterglow, re-echoing it.
A simple example: Cerberus in the Sixth Canto of Hell. There is nothing intrinsically requiring the barking of the gluttons; it is as though the potent canine-ness of the monster infected its surroundings, endowing its company with doglike attributes.
Cerberus's barking is contagious, it spreads to his victims; but, to my cars at least, the general howling that fills this locus amoenus is distantly but increasingly perceivable already in the introductory «meteorological» determinations orchestrated upon the key of r, the growling littera canina or canine letter of the ancients. The storm which tortures the gluttons howls as they do:
But, one may observe, Ciacco and his colleagues are gluttonous dogs, predisposed to doglike activities. However, a thematic coherence is not at all required by Dante's harmonious composition. In the next canto of Inferno, Pluto's debacle is figuratively presented as a seafaring disaster: sails suddenly dropping in a heap when the mast is snapped by the gale. The seafaring image takes off and colors as if by contagion the representation of the avaricious and the prodigal, whose sin, nota bene, has nothing in it intrinsically suggestive of the sea (I set aside here, and in these observations in general, the more or less absurd correspondences of the allegorists).
In this instance, the general «law» of image harmony observed everywhere in Dante may be used as an instrument in the interpretation of a particular small textual difficulty. The traditional interpretation of per forza di poppa (by strength of chest, __ which gives a rather hazy choreography) may well be supplemented by a momentary superimposition, on our text, of a metaphoric ship, with its aft or stern or poop (this is the more frequent meaning of poppa in the Comedy). Illustrators of the seventh canto have always had difficulty in representing this pushing with chest: the salient feature of these sinners is indeed their straining rear, raised high in the air.
At times the system of an image becomes something like a semantic field spread over a whole canto (or tying together two canti), commenting upon the scene, in an undertone as it were. What else are the insistent expressions referring to food, eating, chewing, digesting and, I am tempted to add, regurgitating in canto XVIII (seducers and flatterers) in the Inferno? The sinners there are immersed in pungenti salse (again let's set aside the ambivalence of the term) even before the stuff the flatterers are plunged in is mentioned. [By the way, the «stuff» is emphatically NOT «ordure» as the belatedly Victorian translation of Singleton, 1970, has it; Dante's merda can't be translated but by the corresponding four-letter words]. In this context, the simple fact of «having earlier met someone» is expressed as già di veder costui non son digiuno; the act of watching closely becomes a being ingordo di riguardar; flattery itself is, of course, in keeping with the idiom present in all languages, a licking, or sucking up to, or a never to have one's tongue fed up (la lingua stucca); the very bolgia is described here as a monster beast that grabs with its fangs the sinners (azzanna or assanna); and the conclusion of the canto coincides with the moment when the Wayfarers' eyes become cloyed beyond endurance (e quinci sien le nostre viste sazie).
What is the effect of this network of images? Canto XVIII of the Inferno is of course a sewer, an enormous privy. Septic tanks are a fact of life, if you wish; when your plumber has to descend into yours for repairs, you may feel a thrill of nauseous pity for him or her, but if he or she takes with him or her his or her lunch, you get sick. That is, at least, the reaction recommended by Dante's imagery in the Eighteenth Canto of Inferno.
The expressions «fasting» (digiuno) and «fed up» (sazio) act as frame enclosing the disgusting realities of the canto we have discussed. This kind of allusive framing of a particular segment in Dante's narrative is not unique here, and we must return to the idea at the conclusion of these considerations. One example should be mentioned now en passant, because its hermeneutic structure will be analogous to the framing of the villanello episode. I refer to Ugolino, whose story is enclosed, or rather exclamatively highlighted, by two strongly allusive (and hence hermeneutic) images. Just before the wretched Count tells his story (whose salient moment, remember, is the offer of his «children»: «Padre, assai ci fia men doglia / se tu mangi di noi: tu ne vestisti / queste misere carni, e tu le spoglia ...»), he is presented in the act of chewing away at his enemy's head:
And no sooner has he finished his tale, with the mysterious line, Poscia più che 'l dolor poté 'l digiuno, than he is shown falling again at his sempiternal cannibalistic act:
How anyone can disregard the spectacular hints at the beginning, middle, and end of Ugolino's episode in interpreting the famous mystery line - is a mystery to me: but so do still 90% of he commentators. However, let it suffice to say that Dante's harmonic method of storytelling often helps in the very interpretation of the so called Dantesque cruces.
It is time now to turn to the text which is the main subject of my remarks: the comparison of the villanello with the Pilgrim whose apprehension at seeing his Guide upset (by the fiends' lie and the Jovial Brother's sarcasm, seen in canto XXIII) parallels the disappointment of the «little peasant» at seeing the fields all white:
It is a «rambling» simile that has embarrassed over the centuries most of its interpreters. Benedetto Croce more than sixty years ago included it among those Dante analogies which are not simply «illustrative» (rischiaratrici) but turn out to be «little poems in themselves». The same apologetic tone can be detected in most comments and lecturae dedicated to this canto: the passage is a «nice landscape» [bel quadretto] «complete in itself» (Pietrobono); a «serenely idillic parenthesis» (Grabher), a «bozzetto», a «macchietta», a «miniatura trecentesca» or even «fiamminga» (A. Pézard). Comments reduce the villanello to a «pause of liberation» (Sapegno), to a traditional exordium figure (Contini). Ever since Tommaseo sentenced that the simile here is too «learned» and «non assai evidente» (elsewhere the same Tommaseo complains about the rough and «material» vocabulary of the passage, objecting to vincastro and gavagno), it is commonplace to apologize for the baroque preciousness of this ouverture.
The main complaint expressed or implied seems to be the «ramble» in this rambling comparison: the enjoyed lingering of the author upon the pretty details just created by him. «This is either poetic overkill, or a scene with a well kept secret», exclaims another recent commentator (David J. Baker). Precisely; but then the critic proceeds to solve the secret: «Dante turns away from Florence and politics... The specific historical personality will be converted into a more generic Christian soul... The simile is an imitation, in miniature, of this change...».
Attilio Momigliano suggestively observed (as many before and after him) that Alighieri is especially fond of, and as though deeply touched by, recollections of «humble» (umile) life; scenes of lowly surroundings, simple farm scenes, «the age old gestures of simple folks» (poverelli). Almost as a rule the same lingering smile accompanies in Dante all similar scenes: the montanaro rozzo e selvatico entering town for the first time in his life and stopping speechless with admiration; the shepherd leaning upon his stick and watching his ruminating flock: the village man who repairs his fence with a forcatella di spine; the old tailor straining his eyes to thread his needle.
Another villano has long been the subject of exegetical doubts similar to those besetting the villanello: the comparison exhibits the same flimsiness of the narrative occasion contrasting with the enjoyed lingering details:
Note though that this very lingering and the non-functional detail in the description seem to confer life on this tired farmer. Truth to tell, only the eyes of the peasant are borrowed here for a moment to philter a midsummer twilight spectacle; but the uncertainty (forse) Dante feigns as to the whereabouts of the fields of his creature ends by rounding him out for the reader, makes his outline more certain.
Affectionate lingering, as in the case of the villanello. Another member of what I like to think of as a unit in the conception of Alighieri, exhibits the same flimsiness of narrative occasion: the villana of the Inferno has a function similar to that of the flies and mosquitoes we have seen in the villano passage, i. e., she is no more, narratively, than a calendar indicator, determining the season of courtship among frogs. But Dante's affectionate glance, and the capacity to dream in this personage, suspend the reader's disbelief; and I can't find here a shade of that «flash of the grotesque» or «irony toward the sinners» that some comments attribute to this dreaming farm wife:
The villano, the villana, and the villanello... The third member of this rustic family thriving on the margins of Dante's Malebolge, has been called the «most improper among Dante's similes» (Momigliano). Sapegno says that this farmer who exhibits the childish gesture of «slapping his thigh» and then «goes about the house whining like a poor wretch who has no idea what to do», is not taken «from real life», nor is he, Sapegno goes on saying, approfondito psicologicamente.
That's the main rub: the psychological incoherence in the actions of this character. To get rid of the difficulty, one of the earliest commentators of Dante, Graziolo de' Bambaglioli, misreads, certainly on purpose (reminding one of certain techniques of post-structuralism), the episode, speaking of a rustic who in medio mensis Januarii (it is later than that) videt terram copertum et abundantem nive, quam nivem appellat sororem brume («sees his field covered and filled with snow which he [Dante?] calls the sister of frost»). Another, more recent, commentator of the scene speculates that the villanello must be imagined as a Southern landholder (to understand his despair at seeing a light frost: remember, the whiteness disappears in poco d'ora).
Has this farmer never seen snow or hoarfrost, to confuse the two? Certainly the villano who takes a breather at the end of his workday and watches the fireflies over his fields would never take a slight hoarfrost for a heavy snowfall and react to it with the helpless desolation of the villanello. Neither would the villana, expert spigolatrice and dreamer. How come, one wonders, the farm mortgage of this villanello has not been called in? He should have gone on the block a long time ago. Look at his immature gesture (of disappointment, not despair as some comments suggest). Whom does he, the poor wretch (notice Dante's smile surrounding the figure of this poor tapino), whom does he complain to? The early commentators understood the passage wrongly, without reference to complaining: hac et illac per domum discurrens, says Guido da Pisa, va dall'un canto della casa dentro all'altro, copies translating that great copier the anonymous author of the Ottimo Commento. Modern exegetes usually comment (as Pietrobono did): «now with this now with that member of his family». Who are these members? His children perhaps? His old woman? She would probably take the switch and chase old man out of the house, if he behaved as Dante says he did.
And watch the villanello finally coming upon the bright idea of looking again (why not stick a finger into the white stuff in the first place if he is that shortsighted?), and lo and behold! the great whiteness has disappeared. He can go out and start his end-of-winter chore: the deep plowing of the field, composting, etc. In fact, come to think of it, does this peasant have nothing more engaging to do in early February than shepherding? Why, could he not entrust those pecorelle to his offspring? Inventive Benvenuto da Imola again intervenes: the peasant grabs the switch himself quia non habet famulum quem ipse mittat («does not have a farm boy to send out»). My old Farmers Calendar prescribes for the Aquarius period, precisely, such agricultural activities as preparare profonde arature per le sementi primaverili, interrare letame..., etc. The villana meanwhile is surely out in her kitchen garden, per fare Ie prime semine di piante erbacee, etc., as the Farmers Handbook prescribes for the end of January.
Consider now the diminutive form, villanello, as opposed to its «full size» counterparts, villano and villana. We are told by most commentators that diminutives in Dante have an endearing function. True, the poverello attacked by dogs in a simile of the Inferno, the poverella translating the paupercula of Jesus Christ, and that poor poverel, St. Francis of Assisi in Paradise, are all «caressed» by Dante's diminutives, as also are the Samaritan femminetta, the rondinella of Purgatory, etc. But does this mean that Dante never uses diminutives in their primary role as «reductors of size»? Dozens of times: see the fiammelle in each cantica; the various fiumicelli and ponticelli and even cerchietti in Inferno, the forcatella of the uom de la villa already quoted, the verghetta of the Celestial Messenger, the odd trombetta of the fiend... But are diminutives ever used to denote age? of plants, yes: erbette (fresche), fogliette (pur mo nate); animals too: the lupicin of Count Ugolin's dream, the cicognin which I can't resist quoting: it exhibits the same hovering smile Dante always has when describing the gestures of the young:
But what about humans? The pargoletta, the fantin, the various fantolini of Purgatorio and Paradiso caught in their infantile attitudes, the giovinetta (Hypsipyle of Inferno XVIII). As an adjective, the same word (an adjective that «spreads a smile upon the whole passage», noted padre Cesari, the most attentive among the early 19th-century commentators to stylistic detail in Dante), giovanetto, opens in fact our episode of the villanello (another diminutive, of course: is it denoting affection only or also size? age perhaps?):
How old is the year? If 70 is the perfect age in humans (and, I take it in Dantesque personifications), at the end of January the year must be about 6 years old. Consider the youthful, or even childish, atmosphere Dante seems to surround his villanello with. Surely no one can imagine those two playful sisters, Frost and Snow, as elderly matrons; nor can we miss the diminutive of pecorelle (certainly an affective diminutive here) which seemingly models the «size» of those lambikins upon their master's stature, who ever since age five or six has had the incumbence of «chasing out to pasture», carrying his switch and his basket for provisions for the day, the small family herd.
Umberto Cosmo, one of the giants of 20th-century «Dantology», observed that the poet here, in his affectionate tarrying over the figure of the villanello, in the enjoyment of his own creation, has somehow forgotten his goal. It is hard to disagree with Cosmo, but here it is rather the critic who seems to have mislaid both the starting point and the finish line of Dante's rambling simile. In fact, beyond the frame of «youthfulness» established by the «childhood» of the year and the «lambikins» surrounding the infantile figure of the little shepherd, there is a vaster bracket too, inclusive of the whole episode.
In the simile, as we have said and as it was clear to most ancient (as early as Jacopo della Lana) and almost all modern commentators, Dante the author compares Dante the personage, anxious over his Guide's momentary apprehension and relieved later upon seeing it cleared up, to the villanello and his momentary childish dismay. Virgil's face corresponds to the fields, whitened not by the heavy snowfall of rage, but by a soon-to-disappear hoarfrost of vexation. In an aside here it is interesting to note that, in order to re-establish some coherence in the images, one or two ancient commentators (and at least one recent one), either on purpose or by simple misreading, indicated Virgil as the counterfigure of the little peasant. Benvenuto argues that Virgil was really a shepherd, «historically and allegorically», i. e., he was from a rustic family and wrote the Bucolics (and ovis est Dantis..., etc.) But Benvenuto follows the post-modernist idea of literary criticism: not an explanation of the text, letter and spirit, but a pretext for free association and dreaming on. He reminds you, again, of some intertextual scholars when he speculates on the verse, tosto al mal giunse lo 'mpiastro: as plaster mitigates corporal tumor, he says, so does Virgil's changed face mitigate Dante's timor (fear) (a bad pun, as so often the «proof» in modern allegorical interpretations). Another recent reader of the episode insists that Virgil is compared here to the Sun in Aquarius, tempering his hair, because, the critic argues, Alighieri once, in Inferno XI, has compared Virgil to the sun (O sol che sani ogne vista turbata...). Now that is of course a misreading of the text; Dante clearly states:
As Edoardo Sanguineti put it, the villanello episode is an exemplum «strictly coordinated with the development of the narrative» and it cannot be critically grasped unless we see it in its narrative function. Which is to say that the little peasant's counterpart is a helpless child, the Pilgrim, and Virgil is presented as an adult, a father or even «mother». The «reduction» of Dante the Wayfarer began in the preceding canto. The fiends, having deceived Virgil, rush at the two wayfarers, and
This is an important phase in the development in the Dante-Virgil relation, itself the backbone of the narrative in the first cantica. Virgil, duca segnore maestro, assumes here for the first time the role of a parent: parent of a small child:
This is the upper frame, so to speak, delimiting the picture of the little peasant who cannot be, to my mind, much older than the year when January turns into February. For a child of that age, frost can very well appear as the great whiteness of the memorable snowstorm of last December, when farm boys could not take up their immemorial daily duty of accompanying their herds of sheep to the hillside. Our villanello slaps his thigh in dismay and goes about the house whining «now with this now with that member of the family» (but not with his father, the villano, who has been out on his arable land since 4 am); at last be runs to the door again and, seeing the simple miracle, with childish impetuosity he picks up his switch and his gavagno filled more with hope than with provisions for the day, and sets out for the grassland with the lambs.
Yes, but what about the roba? How could the child worry about a lack of fodder (the usual way to translate roba here)? But roba is not fodder. Comments close to Dante's century (such as Buti's) understand the word as «provisions» for the family (rerum copia deficit vel cui victualia incipiunt deficere, comments Giovanni da Serravalle). Dante uses the word only twice in the Comedy; the other occurrence describes hungry blind beggars plying their trade at the church gate:
Consider the perfect parallelism between a cui la roba falla and a cui la roba manca, which underscores the semantic identity of roba in the two contexts. Our farm boy could well perceive, even in his sleep (the passage in fact implies «waking up hungry»), the general scarcity of foodstuff in the house toward the end of a long winter. Of course the objection remains: the occasion of this reference to roba does not have a strict relation to the pecorelle, main concern of the little peasant. Yes, the reference is an incongruity or narrative excess (just as was the reference to the land of another rustic character, quoted earlier), but certainly less disturbing, I submit, than the widespread incoherence we have noted in the traditional interpretation of the simile. Meanwhile let us imagine that our villanello wakes with the thought of those scarce provisions he will soon put into his gavagno, rustic satchel, together with his renewed hope for spring.
There are some faults in Dante's Divine Comedy, principally induced by the Author's allegorical penchant, which in turn produces most of the poem's famous cruces. Where Dante never makes a mistake though, is indeed in the harmonic composition of his imagery. Besides the psychological incongruity (of a grown up peasant behaving like his 6 year old son), the traditional exegesis of the villanello passage invites us to posit here a fault Dante never commits: a fault of poetic optics. The very function of the simile is to reinforce in the reader's mind the image of Dante the Child and of Virgil the Father. The «lower frame» of our picture underlines and drives in the same situation; Virgil is at his most «paternal» in the Comedy:
The interpretation of Dante's poem has been enriched by the poet's own advice (if the letter to Cangrande is indeed authentic; but the Convivio clearly anticipates the Letter). However, it (the advice), I think, has been made too much of: Dante was a far better composer than performer, as it often happens. However, within the composition itself, as again it happens often, always in great works of art, music and painting included, there is a «recipe» for, I mean a graduate course in, the special reading required for the special work. Many are the passages one could quote; to conclude these remarks, I will read my favorite, in which Dante recommends a reading that respects and follows the suggestions of his harmonic image creation:
If we agree to read it that way, the villanello episode regains, I believe, its psychological, stylistic, and poetic coherence.*
*«Da Ponte Memorial Lecture» delivered at Columbia University on February 28, 1987.