|NUMBER 4||SPRING 1989|
Renewing a Platonic theme, Gaston Bachelard in La Poétique de l'espace argues that «the deepest metaphysics are ... rooted in an implicit geometry».1 This applies particularly to Dante. Indeed, if everyone admits that the treatment of space, especially symbolic topology, is central to an understanding of the Comedy, there is no reason for neglecting this element in the Vita Nuova: not only is Dante's treatment of space in this book very complex and elaborate, it is also directly related to his major spiritual concerns.
The first impression is vagueness. The contents of the Vita Nuova are presented as autobiographical, and yet precise details are missing __ especially topological indications __ to place the events in the real world. Observe that the poet-narrator-glossator never mentions the name of the city that constitutes the evanescent scenery of the story. Dante refers to this place as «the aforementioned city» («la sopradetta cittade») and this little expression functions throughout the narrative as a kind of leitmotiv. It echoes the tone of the whole book, which is one of semi-secrecy: this Bildungsroman is an ambiguous and fascinating synthesis of revelation and dissimulation. The fact that we do not see, not even once, the name of Florence in what is supposed to be a book of memory, is by no means casual: on the contrary.
If Dante has cut out the sensuous details of his environment ... it must be because this world has no significance for the story. It is also true that, by this negative approach he has achieved something positive, a suggestion of universality: this city in which a moral drama is unfolding could be any city belonging to any time (and the lover could be Everyman). In fact, the name of the city, the beautiful evocative name, Firenze, is never mentioned.2
However, Florence is frequently alluded to through a periphrasis: as if Dante wanted his text to retain an intermediate position between mere autobiography and moral parable. This must be related to the words of his Proem:
It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading [Incipit vita nova] __ if not all of them, at least the essence of their meaning.3 [«Sotto la quale rubrica io trovo scritte le parole le quali è mio intendimento d'assemplare in questo libello; e se non tutte, almeno la loro sentenzia».]
This amounts to saying that the poet intends to obliterate such elements of his biographical data as are accidental or atypical __ in order to broaden his own moral drama to a universal dimension. Thus Dante follows his genuine bent of mind, which is, as Frederic Ozanam says in his well known essay on Dante and Catholic philosophy, «a bold, and naturally metaphysical turn of thought, placing itself from the outset in the invisible world, beyond the limits of time and of this earth».4
But a precise location for the various «mansions» of the moral drama are missing as well. This creates in the reader's mind an oneiric impression, well in keeping with the importance of dreams and visions in the Vita Nuova. Moreover, the paranormal states of consciousness that Dante as protagonist experiences in his libello are often accompanied by a modification in his perception of space, which can result in a complete loss of spatial consciousness. The expression «I no longer knew where I was» («io non sapea ove io mi fosse») is another recurrent expression in the Vita Nuova (it occurs in two chapters).5 The most striking example is to be found in chapter XXIII, where Dante evokes his premonitory dream about Beatrice's death: «While my imagination was wandering like this, I came to the point where I no longer knew where I was» [«Così cominciando ad errare la mia fantasia, venni a quello ch'io non sapea ove io mi fosse»]. It is worth noticing that here Dante gives a concrete spatial significance to the verb «to wander» («errare»), exploiting its polysemia. The verb means both to wander, bodily, and to err. Precisely, in this dream the subjective apprehension of space is completely upset: the protagonist has the impression of visiting the lifeless body of his Beloved: «It seemed to me I went to see the body in which that most noble and blessed soul had dwelt» [«mi parea andare per vedere lo corpo ne lo quale era stata quella nobilissima e beata anima»]. The oneiric wandering ends in the closed space of his bedroom: «it seemed to me I returned to my room» [«me parea tornare ne la mia camera»]. The repetition of the verb to seem («parere») indicates the exceptional nature of Dante's perception of space in this delirium. In his essay on the Vita Nuova Charles Singleton observed that there occurs, through Beatrice's death, a duplication of space: «Beatrice may be said to die twice in the Vita Nuova: once in the illusory space of what is called a delirium, and then really».6 Like the death of Christ, that of Beatrice, which is anticipated in this dream, modifies cosmic order in the poet's mind. The spiritual irradiation of Beatrice carried up to Heaven by the Angels annihilates the limitations of the physical world and transmutes earthly space into a kind of synthetic ubiquity, which foreshadows the world of the Spirit.7
This disappearance of the characteristic features of earthly physical space (limitation, distance, precise location) goes along with another aspect that could appear contradictory at first sight: space in the Vita Nuova is to a large extent an abstract mathematical one, imbued with precise numerical correspondences. Consider chapter V: critics have mentioned the puzzling precision of Dante's placing his «screen-lady» in the church exactly halfway between Beatrice and himself on a straight line. This geometric position seems to designate her as a perfect «screen». Likewise, in chapter XL we find the same pattern of median subdivision, with the detail of the street «which runs through the center of the city» and consequently divides it in two halves. Mark Musa, in his essay on the Vita Nuova, stresses the importance of geometric distribution throughout the text, applying this to the internal textual space of the poems themselves, which are subdivided by Dante as the glossator. This may be linked with the numerical symbolism that suffuses the architecture of the whole book: the divisibility of space into perfectly equal parts mirrors the perfection of the spiritual world which, as it were, pervades the terrestrial, thanks to the godlike nature of Beatrice. Domenico de Robertis noted that this presence of the spiritual world throughout the book was intended by the poet. «Il piano divino doveva essere tutto spiegato dinanzi agli occhi: era il piano stesso dell'opera».8
The geometric distribution of space seems to be at variance with the topological vagueness of the scenery. Yet it fulfills the same function and suggests in the reader's mind the presence of the eternal. This medieval conception of space as a reflection of God's intellect in a mode of extension will be resumed in Isaac Newton's physics (and later denied in the Einsteinian theory of the continuum).
The treatment of space is a metaphor of the whole book in another respect as well. To the interpenetration of physical and metaphysical reality corresponds the interpenetration of inner space and outer space. This is evident in chapter XXIV; in this chapter (whose number may symbolize praise: it refers to the twenty-four old men eternally praising God in the Apocalypse)9 Dante describes a vision in which the god of Love appears to him:
Mi giunse una imaginazione d'Amore; che mi parve vederlo venire da quella parte ove la mia donna stava, e pareami che lietamenta mi dicesse nel cor mio: «Pensa di benedicere lo dì che io ti presi, però che tu lo dei fare» [A vision of Love came to me and I seemed to see him coming from that place where my lady dwelt, and he seemed to say joyously from within my heart: «See that you bless the day I took you captive; it is your duty to do so»] .
Notice once more the recurrence of the verb to seem («parere»), which signals the lack of objective reality in the allegory of love __ a problem that Dante will tackle in the theoretical interpolation in the following chapter. Apart from this, the reader is struck by a paradox: whereas Dante first describes the figural representation of Love as coming «from that place where [his] lady dwelt» («da quella parte ove la mia donna stava»), he then mentions Love's words as coming «from within his heart» («nel cor mio»).
This apparently absurd shift from the outer to the inner space may be explained in two ways. Dante himself states that the «figura» of love is simply a rhetorical device, and therefore his locomotion in the outer space is purely metaphorical. But, granted that, why would this anthropomorphic representation come from «that place where his lady dwelt», that is, the nameless city? There is an obvious parallelism between city and heart, illustrating a general parallelism between the inner microcosmic and the outer macrocosmic space. Indeed, Dante's heart is the spiritual center of his microcosm, being the abode of love and the siege of his vital and animal sprits; likewise, the city is the center of the macrocosm since it is there that the divine Beatrice spent her terrestrial life. «Cor» and «cittade» are both abodes of love. Remember in this respect that the god of Love identifies in the same chapter his own nature with Beatrice's: «chi volesse sottilmente considerare, quella Beatrice chiamerebbe Amore, per molta simiglianza che ha meco» [«anyone of subtle discernment would call Beatrice love, since she so greatly resembles me»].10 Observe that an explicit reference to inner space cannot be fortuitous in this chapter where Beatrice is implicitly compared to Christ (we recall His famous precept: «The kingdom of Heaven is within you»). This shows to what extent, as Jerome Mazzaro phrases it, «reality in Dante is ... as much internal as it is external».11
From the same perspective, the periphrasis used by Dante to designate the city («that place where my lady dwelt») suggests that the city has no value in itself, no independent existence. The city is entirely determined by the presence of Beatrice, reminding the reader of contemporary Italian portraits, in which the landscape background is a mere adornment for the central character.12 The city is, as it were, a mere framework of Beatrice's life in the Here-Below, and this is the reason why, after her death, it is left bereft, in the pitiful condition conveyed by Jeremiah's words quoted in chapter XXVIII: «Quomodo sedet sola civitas plena populo! facta est quasi vidua domina gentium» [«How doth the city sit solitary that was full of people! How is she become a widow, she that was great among the nations!»]. Thus, either in the microcosm or in the macrocosm, Beatrice is presented as the center of the world: she is the radiant center of the city and of Dante's heart. Her central function is related to the spiritual content of the Vita Nuova.
The symbolism of the geometric center is very important in the book. In chapter XII the god of Love addresses the poet in Latin: «Ego tanquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentie partes; tu autem non sic» [«I am like the center of a circle, equidistant from all points on the circumference; you, however, are not»]. There are several observations to be made about this sybilline formula. To begin we have here once more an example of Dante's fascination with geometric proportions. The center of the circle reflects divine perfection insofar as it is «equidistant from all points of the circumference». Then we notice that the geometric center is endowed with positive symbolism, since it is identified with Love. The exact reverse obtains in the Comedy; there the center of the Earth represents the supreme concentration of evil, abode of Lucifer. To go toward the Divine is a centrifugal movement in the poem; it is centripetal in the Vita Nuova.13 However, there is no contradiction here, but rather complementarity, for, as Musa puts it, «to go from the Vita Nuova through the Divine Comedy is to progress from the intra nos to the extra nos and the super nos of Saint Bonaventure».14 There is another instance, in the Vita Nuova, of the positive symbolism of the geometric center in Beatrice herself: she is indeed, during her terrestrial life, the radiant center of the city. She attracts people and fills everything around her with her intrinsic perfection.15 See chapter XXVI:
Questa gentilissima donna, di cui ragionato è ne le precendenti parole, venne in tanta grazia de le genti, che quando passava per via, le persone correano per vedere lei. ... E quando ella fosse presso d'alcuno, tanta onestade giungea nel cuore di quello, che non ardia di levare li occhi [This most gracious lady of whom I have spoken in the preceding poems came into such a widespread favor that, when she walked down the street, people ran to see her. ... And when she passed by someone, such modesty filled his heart that he did not dare to raise his eyes].
Beatrice assumes in the terrestrial world a truly divine function: she is the beatific center to which every soul is attracted for its own salvation, since her proximity purifies the soul. The power of her attraction is extended even beyond the limits of the city, since Dante in chapter XL mentions pilgrims coming from remote places who in a pensive mood descend «the street which runs through the center of the city where the most gracious lady was born» __ as though they were instinctively drawn to the magnetic center of her terrestrial residence.
Earthly space then is structured around Beatrice. It is divided into two great categories: terrestrial space and celestial space, the latter corresponding to the hierarchy of the heavens. One could use the traditional Pythagorean expression: sublunar world and supralunar world, __ the lunar sky being for Pythagoras the frontier between Heaven and Earth. Sublunar space is horizontal by definition, since it is constituted by the extension of the earth toward the four cardinal points. In the Vita Nuova we could represent this space as a circle, whose center is Beatrice, and by extension, the city.16 Supralunar space, on the contrary, is essentially vertical, since it is a scale from the lowest degrees of the spiritual realm to the «highest Heaven» inhabited by God. Now the Empyrean is the abode of Beatrice after her death, since even in her earthly life she was attracted to this spiritual place, as Dante tells us in his magnificent canzone: «Donne ch'avete intelletto d'amore» __ in which an angel asks God to summon her back to Heaven. The vertical axis going from the nameless city, Beatrice's terrestrial abode, to the highest Heaven, her eternal one, is the path of her ascension, which Dante foresees in the dream of chapter XXIII:
Io imaginava di guardare verso lo cielo, e pareami vedere moltitudine d'angeli li quali tornassero in suso, ed aveano dinanzi da loro una nebuletta bianchissima [I imagined I looked up at the sky, and I seemed to see a multitude of angels returning above, and they had before them a little pure white cloud].
Being at the base of the axis, the nameless city becomes a kind of Jerusalem, the center of earthly space and a reflection of highest heaven. This is suggested by the quote from Jeremiah, since the Prophet implicitly refers to Jerusalem.17 Around this «axis mundi» all the Vita Nuova is finally organized: it represents the apotheosis of the Beloved, and the bridge she establishes through her own Christlike nature between Heaven and earth.18
To reassume: both in the Vita Nuova and the Divina Commedia space is like a mirror in which divine nature is reflected.19 This is obvious in the Comedy, the odyssey of Dante in the Beyond; but space has already a metaphysical meaning in the terrestrial setting of the Vita Nuova. What is original in Dante is the relation he establishes between his conception of space and the idea of Love. Owing to divine love spiritual harmony is present in terrestrial space, since by its own nature divine love does not allow an absolute separation between the two worlds. In this sense space in the Vita Nuova is a metaphor of Love; but at a certain point the symbol becomes so transparent that it loses its independence from the notion to which it points.
1 «La métaphysique la plus profonde s'est enracinée dans une géométrie implicite», G. Bachelard, La Poétique de l'espace (Paris: P. U. F., 1957), p. 191.
2 Mark Musa, Dante's Vita Nuova, translated and with an essay (Bloomington, Indiana UP, 1973), pp. 101-2.
3 Throughout this study we use Mark Musa's translation of the Vita Nuova (see above).
4 Frederic Ozanam, Dante and Catholic Philosophy, translated by Lucia D. Pychowska (New York: The Cathedral Library Association, 1913), p. 285.
5 The reader finds it in chapters XXIII and XXXIX.
6 Charles S. Singleton, An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958), p. 19.
7 One could find throughout the Vita Nuova, as well as at the end of the Paradiso an implicit identification between Beatrice and Mary. The latter seems to be the celestial archetype of the former.
8 «The divine plan of reality had to be entirely exposed to the reader's eyes: it was the very plan of the book»: Domenico de Robertis, Il Libro della Vita Nuova (Firenze: G. C. Sansoni, 1970), p. 159.
9 Apoc. 4: 4. __ In chapter XVIII, the poet has decided that from then on he would write nothing but poetry in praise of his lady. Twenty-four is a multiple of twelve, which is both a mystic number (the number of the apostles) and a cosmic number (the cycle of the year). In some early Byzantine cathedrals, like Kariye Camii in Istanbul, Christ is represented surrounded by twenty-four prophets.
10 If one considers this equivalence, along with Guinizelli's idea, resumed by Dante in chapter XX, of the unity of love and the «noble heart» (the «cuor gentil»), one could establish a triple equation: Beatrice = Love = the heart = the city.
11 The quote is from Luke 17: 21. __ Cf. Jerome Mazzaro, The Figure of Dante: An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981), p. 88.
12 This also explains why Dante did not give the city a name. __ Thus, there are four reasons why the city remains nameless. One: the name «Firenze» is, as Musa says, «a beautiful evocative name» (cf. note 1). In fact it could evoke in the reader's mind a cultural, political, historical context that is at variance with Dante's main purpose in the Vita Nuova. Two: it would give the book too precise an autobiographical background. Three: it would restrain the universal allegorical meaning of this city. Four: it would give it an autonomous existence «nomina sunt consequentia rerum» (cf. chapter XIII), whereas the city must remain absolutely dependent on Beatrice as a spiritual presence.
13 At least as long as Beatrice represents the divine center in the terrestrial space. With the motive of her ascension toward Heaven, we find again the movement toward the most remote sphere, that of the Empyrean sky. The geometric center can assume a positive spiritual symbolism only in the «sublunar space».
14 Op. cit., p. 208.
15 Here Dante evokes the classical idea of kalos kai agathos, the unity of beauty and goodness.
16 Notice that whereas Dante once mentions one of his travels outside the city (chapter IX), Beatrice never leaves the city during her terrestrial life. She is essentially static, as a kind of «primum mobile»: she moves exclusively within the city. This is may be related to her symbolic function.
17 This is also suggested by the pilgrims in chapter XL. The city, after Beatrice's death, has become another shrine.
18 The theme of the «axis mundi» is common both in the Bible and in Greco-Latin tradition. In Genesis it is figured by the Tree of Life, and we find it in Virgil (Aeneid, VI). Like an umbilical cord it links the earth with Heaven.
19 If we link these observations with those of the third paragraph concerning the abstract geometric aspect of sublunar space in the Vita Nuova, we see how Dante suggests universality through his treatment of space. Being abstract and geometric, the scenery of the Vita Nuova does not have precise limits. The straight lines constituted by the streets, for instance, or by the road outside the city, mentioned in chapter IX, can be extended toward the infinite. They are like radii extending from the center constituted by the city. Thereby the whole sublunar world is virtually and geometrically encompassed in the Vita Nuova.