Apr 27 2024

The ‘Divine Parody’ of the “Book written within and without”

[Italian version] *

   Had Gérard Genette had this research on the relationship between the Divina Commedia and the Lectura super Apocalipsim by the Franciscan friar Petrus Iohannis Olivi (1248-1298) amongst his Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree (1982), whilst studying paratext, he would have certainly assigned an important place to this case and identified a new type in the numerous hypertext case studies. Therefore, Dante would have shared the front row with the multitude of palimpsest authors (who had transformed or imitated in various ways previous works) with Corneille, Balzac, Flaubert, Proust, Joyce, Borges and others.

   1. Philologically comparing the two works, one in Latin, the other in the vernacular, as presented in this research, the illustrious literary theorist would have chanced upon intertextualities that are not immediately evident (for example, Rev. 1:164:2-55:86:88:8-911:1816:15). Were they just due to common parlance? How could this be so, since they are found repeatedly in different passages of the two texts? Such a widespread phenomenon could not be established by comparing the Commedia with works that Dante knew well such as the Summa Theologiae by Thomas Aquinas or De Civitate Dei by Saint Augustine. Specific references to other texts by Virgil, Ovid, Lucan or Boethius are always limited. Was it really something that could be called ‘intertextuality’?
   Examining the relationship between the two texts, Genette would have noticed the following rules that bind B (the Commedia) to A (the Lectura super Apocalipsim):


   a) Groups of words in the Lectura are found again close to one another, though freely placed in various ways, in the Commedia, as if they were threads taken from one warp and twisted with others in order to weave a new cloth. The use of identical words in Latin and in the vernacular within a small amount of text is too frequent to be a mere coincidence. These are not isolated words as they are placed in groups in a way that is neither commonplace nor expected. There is no calquing or rewriting. No phrases have been transferred – as they could not be from prose to poetry – only semantic elements which are highly rhetoric signs of the theological meaning. The co-presence is evident insofar as the vocabulary of the Commedia derives from Latin, as latinisms or terms already used in the Florentine dialect. Even the Florentine terms of all social classes or those drawn from other Italian dialects, Gallicisms, Arabisms and neologisms correspond to the apocalyptic exegesis, at times due to phonetic similarity, surrounded by signs (keywords) that appear to lead readers to the other text.
Further examples are Prologus, notabile X; Rev. 3:127:3-47:13-1712:1714:417:118: 1019:17-1821:12.
   A consequence of a) is that the groups of tercets, which numerically correspond in various sections of the Commedia, contain keywords that lead to the same page in the Lectura, such as Rev. 5:8; 7:3-47:13-14.

   Through a systematic analysis Genette could have verified how, in hundreds of cases, starting from single words in the same or adjacent verses, others are found that refer to the coincident (when the vernacular derives from Latin) or concordant (when they are replaced) semantics, in the same passage of the Apocalypse and also in the exegesis thereof. Moreover, these semantic juxtapositions do not occur between words that can be compared on account of common parlance, such as water and baptism or fire and smoke, yet rather between distant elements: “tres … immundos … inducentes … familiares – famiglia … m’indussero … tre … mondiglia (Rev. 16:12-13)”; “prestet … emendare – rimendo … ne presti (explicit)”; “venerit discessio – verrà … disceda” (Rev. 13:18); “exierunt … pungentium … traxerunt – tragge … n’esce … ponta” (Rev. 9:3), and so forth. He would have further highlighted this fact by conducting another investigation of the hapax legomena found in the Commedia (since they are rarer or planned words).


   b) An identical passage in the Lectura leads to several passages in the Commedia (and vice-versa) through the presence of the same words; unity becomes plurality, referring to that which is united. This means that the same exegesis of a passage in the Apocalypse was used at different stages during the composition of the poem, such as in 7:3-421:1622:1-2 (where by analysing one verb only – derivare– many instances may be found).

   c) Several passages of the Lectura may be collated according to an analogical procedure typical of the distinctiones used by preachers. However, since the Apocalypse contains expressions, such as Leitmotive, which are repeated several times, the choice is not casual as it is determined by the scriptural text. As suggested by Olivi, especially in the Prologue, in order to make the meaning of the text more intelligible, the choice is made through key-words that link the passages to be collated, a ‘mutua collatio’ of parts of the Lectura enriches the meaning associated with the words and makes thematic development possible.

   c1) Collation is prompted by the scriptural text,
   due to the repetition of the themes: fulguravocestonitruaterremotusvox aquarum multarum;
   or the introduction of passages from identical or similar verses: Rev. 1:6↔5:103:3↔16: 154:6↔15:2;
  or consistency with passages: Rev. 1:16-17 (the exegesis of the tenth and eleventh perfections of Christ as the supreme shepherd), or since they deal with the same subject: Rev. 6:9-11 (the opening of the fifth seal); Rev. 21:12-16  (description of heavenly Jerusalem).

   c2) Collation is established by keywords that link the passages to be collated, such as the various meanings of vox; the expression in medio;
   or keywords like amen1, amen2, cinisodiumreverentia;
  or the presence of similar themes: Rev. 9:14↔20:1-3 (insurmountable boundaries); Rev. 16:17↔1:16 (the hemisphere of air serene).

   c3) Collation is suggested by the exegetist as in the case of Rev. 7: 2↔10:1 (the angel of the sixth seal and the angel whose face was as the sun both of whom identified with Saint Francis).

   c4) The author decided the collation: Rev. 9:13 (Count Ugolino recounts the death of the sons) + 6:14 (the called for punishment of Pisa) + 7:12  (“the fair land where is heard”). Numerous symmetrical passages, also used elsewhere in the poem, are found in the second case.

   d) Although the Lectura maintains the same sequence of the twenty-two chapters in the Apocalypse, Olivi suggests a different way of understanding and grouping the text, based on the seven periods of the history of the Church, as prefigured in the Old Testament.
   The Apocalypse is divided into seven visions:  the seven Churches in Asia; the seven seals; the seven trumpets; the woman clothed with the sun (the seven battles sustained by the Church); the seven vials; the judgment of Babylon in the seven heads of the dragon and heavenly Jerusalem. The first six visions may, in turn, be divided into seven moments, each of which refer to one of the seven periods of the history of the Church. By assembling all the first elements of the first six visions (church, seal, trumpet, war, vial, the first phase of the judgement of Babylon), all the second, all the third and so forth, seven groups of theological themes are obtained and coincide with all the themes concerning each of the seven periods.  Two more groups must be added to the first seven: the exegesis of the seventh vision (with no division) and the exegesis of the chapters in the scriptural text, or parts thereof, that introduce the following explanations of each vision in septenaries which Olivi defines as roots (radicalia) or source (fontalia). In this way nine groups are obtained: the proemial parts, the seven groups of septenaries and the seventh vision. The extensive Prologue to the Lectura, divided into thirteen Notabilia, may also be rearranged according to the seven periods.  Therefore, the Lectura contains the principles and criteria so that perceptive readers may draw another book, made of the same material but recomposed and divided in another way.
   The Commedia is actually structured in a different way than appears to readers. Dante’s journey was made in cyclical septenaries which are equivalent to Olivi’s seven periods of Church history, the way he classified the exegetical material. The poem is organised according to progressive parts in which, by means of keywords, the themes of each period prevail and break the literal boundaries established by the cantos and circles, terraces and heavens. Like the mesh of a suit of armour, each period is linked both to the previous and to the subsequent one. Therefore, maps that include the spiritual order of the Commedia may be drawn. This research has led to a Spiritual Topography of the Commedia where each verse, or group of verses, hyper-textual links lead to the exegetical cloth from which the “good tailor” made the “gown” (cf. Par. XXXII, 139-141).

   We may deduce from the above that the text of the Lectura was rearranged twice. The first time on the basis of Olivi’s instructions according the exegetical material ascribable to each period of the Church (see for example the third period of Church history). The second time following the principle applied in the distinctiones used by the preachers, according to analogically collated lemmas.

   By examining the findings of this research, Genette would have concluded that this is not a generic intertextuality, a term which in dantesque studies is usually defined as source identification. The relationship between the Commedia and the Lectura constitutes the parody. In the relationship between hypertext B (the Commedia) and the earlier hypotext A (the Lectura super Apocalipsim) the structure is that of transformation: although B does not mention A at all, B would not exist without A, meaning that the author chose A to transform the latin prose into verses in the vernacular.
   Genette would have noticed the quantity of comparisons, governed by precise and constant rules, such as to make it a primary quality. In fact, the parody produced in B extends to all of A. A is an exegesis that contains quotes from the Bible and authors who expounded and interpreted it, together with the author’s observations. Essentially, it deals with theological concepts. B is a poem that describes a journey during which the author meets mythological, historical, ancient and modern characters. Natural phenomena occur as cold, heat, earthquake, wind, sun, moon etc. Philosophical and theological issues are also examined. In the narrative B uses a language drawn from the Latin in A or corresponding to such when the words do not derive from Latin. This language is a combination of signs that refer to A. Hence, the literal sense of B contains the meaning of the concepts in A, which could generally be called spiritual or mystical. The Commedia would have appeared to Genette like the Apocalypse, a “book written within and without”, with a double meaning.
   Delving into the intimate ‘literariness’ of the Commedia, Roland Barthes’s disciple would have noticed that the meanings of the signs in B refer in A exclusively to the history of the Church and in particular to the Franciscan Order, while B distributes them over the entire universe and the life of men on earth, with their passions and needs. A parody transforms the circumstances of the character it imitates, whereas in this case, in which to the exegetic-theological concepts have been assigned “e piedi e mano” (“feet and hand”), the whole context has been changed. Like the composer of Apocalypsis cum figuris in Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann, the poet makes the same things different and knows how to vary the themes (which he retained and used indifferently for infernal or paradisiacal descriptions), so repetitions are not identified. Hence, Dante’s description of his poem – “polisemos, hoc est plurium sensuum” (Epistola XIII, 20) – corresponds.
   Finally, Genette would not have failed to dwell on the longest-lived work produced in the parody forge: the Italian language, which on one hand saw Latin as new ideal model for a universal language. Latin was a language for the few and no longer sufficied for all the expressive needs. The Latin used in the exegesis is similar to the vernacular, by working on this humble language – the sermo humilis discussed by Erich Auerbach – Dante bestowed the “glory of the tongue” on the vernacular.
   On the other hand, the distinctive language (and signs) in the Commedia is directed at the Holy Scripture, or more precisely, at the last canonical book and the great exegesis thereof by the poet’s contemporary that contains the entire Bible in septenaries, which in turn, is the form, example and purpose of science. Herbert Grundmann observed that the constant search for the utmost harmony on earth between the city’s conflicting factions, the adverse speculative or theological stances, the Empire and the Papacy, the “two suns” in conflict, allowed Dante to place Joachim of Fiore among the souls of the wise in the Sphere of the Sun beside Bonaventura, while Siger of Brabant is introduced by Thomas Aquinas, thus demonstrating a truly Catholic spirit [1].
   By making correspond to the book that records the divine signs in human history all personal knowledge and experience, as well the solutions to doctrinal issues, the vernacular of the Commedia presents itself as a clavis universalis of knowledge. This is no longer the “illustrious vernacular” but the language of everyone and the new Apostle John. Now allegory is no longer fiction but a figure of the significant history of divine foreknowledge and providence. The vernacular became a new “language of grace” as was Hebrew, the language spoken by our Redeemer in His coming in the flesh (cf. De vulgari eloquentia, I, vi, 5-7).

   2. In tribute to the expert of palimpsests and literary parodies, Gérard Genette until now has been recalled as the virtual examiner of the findings of this research, aware that it is a sturdy tower on a cliff, built of its texts, “that does not shake its summit though the winds may blast”. Having established the first principles, which could be called the prolegomena to this research, we shall examine the details below.

  ■ The metamorphosis of the “book written within and without” (Rev. 5:1), which is also the “book of life” (20:12), goes from the incipit to the explicit; it touches the constituent elements examined in the first verse (1:1), adopts the cadences of the Bible, at times restricted, at other times extended by spiritual strength (Prologus, notabile XI). The loss of the first charity by gradually falling and retrieved by ascending was drawn from the exegesis (2:5), as well as  the opportunity to describe the “sweet life”, diversified in each of the spheres of heaven, of the blessed souls who dwell in the Empyrean.
   The Sacred Poem is composed of chants and praise. Themes in the Lectura are staged in the anagnorises (1:10-12), the memory of a golden and Edenic age (3:3), the ascent to increasingly arduous visions (4:1-2), the passage to unusual and heavenly regions (21:17), the strange and closed veil which gradually opens and becomes very thin, hearing rather than seein is more subtle and intellectual thing (9:16-17).
   Christ the double guide, at first the external voice and intellectual light and then the inner pleasure and sentiment of love (2: 7), becomes real in Virgil who in the Garden of Eden left the field clear for Beatrice. The experience of gusto announces the ascent to heaven (19:17-18). At the end of the journey, another guide, Saint Bernard, acts as “doctor anagogicus” who takes the disciple up the high mountain in an anagogical sense (21:1-2.9).
   In the second advent of Christ, the sixth period of Church history, the novum saeculum had already started for his spiritual disciples. The “point”, or rather the final cause of human history, the sixth period was not exactly an active life, the res gestae that marked the fourth period, was receiving rather than giving, comfort instead of worry, speech after the old order to keep silent (10:4); this is the language of He who dictates from within, who open the will to speak and to listen (3:8). If the spiritual sense (4:2) was revealed to the friends of God – the people chosen for God’s army who were signed on their forehead (7:3-4) – in a period in which intellectual (not physical) miracles took place, they had to face terrible trials and tribulations induced by the Antichrist and his followers. The new martyrs did not experienced physical torture, they were mainly tormented by their doubt about true faith, influenced by philosophical sophistry, misleading Scriptures (Francesca), hypocritical simulation of holiness and false pontifical authority (Guido of Montefeltro), since false pontiffs rise like Annas and Caiaphas rose up against Jesus. To make this psychological martyrdom more severe, which even the most experienced were unable to resist, their torturers performed miracles (Prologue, notabile X).
   The poet finds that the combination of the pagan period and the Christian period in the exegesis is justified, waters of the same river, a part of which refers to the whole as in a synecdoche (17:6). Amongst the “spiriti magni (great-hearted souls)” Aristotle plays the part of He who sitteth on the throne, surrounded and honoured by the ancients (“seniores”), holding a book sealed with seven seals in his right hand, yet to be opened by the Lamb, and he is the first custodian of “gubernationes et documenta” who then “per magistrorum consilium descendunt ad nos quasi a pastore uno” (cf. Ecclesiastes, 12, 11: Rev. 4:3). However, had Dante curbed his talent, he would not have followed the Franciscan exegete’s reproof of the Stagirite’s philosophy (9:1-2).
   Themes in the exegesis are altered and distributed throughout the poem: pray so that others will pray (8:3-4), desire to die due to oppressive thoughts (9:5-6), meanings related to sospesi (4:7), valore (5:1), gentile (5:18:8), cortesia (22:17), contrapasso; reference to colours (6:29:17);  swearing that time shall be no longer (10:5-7); pace (3:128:1).
   Imbued with themes drawn from the Lectura, the descriptions of landscapes such as Assisi become sacred (Prologue, notabile VII; Rev. 7:2); the Garden of Eden corresponds to Patmos, the ancient Greek island suitable for contemplation (1:4.9); the infernal bridges to the archus praelii (bow of battle), symbol of the triumphant strength of the Kingdom of Judah mentioned by Zacharias the prophet (21:12); the banks made of stone protected from the rain of fire are a sign of the indefectibility of Saint Peter’s Church (6:8). Neologisms are unearthed in the exegesis (3:2019:17-18).
   The poet becomes a prophet, not so much due to his predictions of future events (Prologue, notabile IV) or public proclamations, but rather by moving events from the particular to the universal and back and from ‘I to we’, like Isaias, Ezechiel and Jesus himself, setting the prophetic cadence of the entire poem (13:1).
   Polysemy is increased by disguised and undisguised quotes from the Bible (such as the Psalms) in various passages in the poem, which are embedded in those of the Lectura super Apocalipsim that surround and arm them with semantic mesh.
   Biblical passages are based on enigmas that have never been entirely explained: the Greyhound refers to Mathew 17:11 and Malachias 4:5-6; “a five-hundred ten and five” is formed by starting from the numeral letters of the name of  the beast (six hundred sixty six, Rev. 13:18); Matelda is the name of a real person and refers to Psalm 92:4. Words of obscure meaning, such as suppe, become clear when compared with the exegesis.
   The transmundane journey, plotted with characters from this world, reflects the periods of the history of divine signs written in the book: the Old Testament, closed in a harsh and stony world (Inferno); life in the Church during the seven periods of its history (Purgatorio); the state of the blessed souls awaiting resurrection (Paradiso).
   The mountain that from a distance appeared as one to the Jews before the advent of Christ, appeared as such to Ulysses during his last daring journey (Prologue, notabile XIII; Rev. 21:1-2); in historical progress the mountain has three peaks (the first advent of Christ in the flesh, the second in the Spirit of his disciples, the third in the Last Judgement). Centuries in the form of letters, drawn from a pseudo-Joachimite writing, mark the spheres of the Sun, Mars and Jupiter.
   The Divine Will is also the will of Rome. The history of Rome, like the events of the Church, proceeded in septenaries. In an Olivian historical perspective, adequately updated by Dante, the Empire found an independent place. Since the woman (the Church) was given two wings of a great eagle so that she might fly into the desert of the Gentiles (Rev. 12:14), wings interpreted as the third age of the doctors (who refute heresy using the reason as sword) and the fourth period of the anchorites (devoted to the Lord’s Supper), which are both periods of solar knowledge, their qualities could be likened to the Empire (sword) and the Papacy (pastoral), Marco Lombardo’s “two suns” (Purg. XVI, 106-114).
   Since the river clear as crystal (the Holy Ghost) that flows in the middle of Jerusalem has two banks, one human and the other divine, with Christ-the tree of life in the midst shading both (Rev. 22:1-2), the sacramental shadow of higher truth reflects on the “ombra de le sacre penne” (“the shadow of the sacred wings”) of the imperial eagle, to which Justinian refers (Par. VI, 7) and on the “ombra de le sacre bende” (“the shadow of the sacred veil”) typical of the evangelic and religious life mentioned by Piccarda (Par. III, 114), namely the two purposes of blessedness which Providence assigned to man (cf. Monarchia, III, xv, 7). By becoming the Church’s consort in heaven, the Empire would have been fully entitled to partake in the Word becoming flesh and its eternal generation. Just as Christ was subject to the Father due to his mortal humanity, whilst remaining consubstantial and equal, the Roman Prince, likened to the Son of man, should honour and was subject “in aliquo” to the Roman Pontiff (as stated at the end of Monarchia), though they were still peers.
   The polyphonic nature of the great parody lends “e piedi e mano” to the perfections of Christ the Supreme Shepherd, freely adapting them also for the damned souls like discordant notes. Virgil, Charon and Cato possess these perfections: mantle (1:13), hair (1:14), eyes (1:14), feet (1:15).
   The theme of Christ, the root of David and lion of Judah who rose to open the book (5:5) indicates Ezzelino da Romano, Cunizza and Sordello. Variations are made to parentheses such as “tempus et tempora et dimidium temporis” (12:14); the commutatio of the priestly lineages in the Old Testament and the alternation of poverty and affluence in the papacy in the New Testament is reflected in the rules that regulate the entire human history attributed to Fortune (Prologue, notabile VII). Joachim of Fiore is the figure of Virgil, both of whom were prophets of a new age and uncertain about its inception (12:6).
   The she-wolf  (universal greed) reflects the Saracen beast (6:8); the neutral angels in the vestibule of hell represent those who are neither entirely unfaithful to God nor devoted to Christian piety with (Christians in the land of the Sultan 12:18). The pusillanimous are punished for the misdeeds for which the church of Laodicea was rebuked (3:15-19). The four angels who stopped the wind from blowing (7:1) are transformed into the first ancient demons in the Hell. The qualities of the angel of the sixth seal (7:2), or the angel whose face was as the sun (10:1-3), are transferred to Dante signed with seven P’s (wounds), BeatriceSaint Francis and Cangrande and also the memory of the “renewed creation”, as likewise are the qualities of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel whence came those who were signed (7:5-8). The Florentine ancestors are reflected in the contemplatives of the fourth period, the descendants in the condescensio of the fifth period; Farinata is dressed as pseudo-secular pope (13:18). Homer plays Saint Gregory the Great who flew like an eagle above the others when climbing the allegorical steep tracks (8:13); Gaeta, the place Aeneas named after his wet-nurse Caieta, prefigures the theme of the Church that nurses the faithful (12:14).
   As the Saviour’s enemy was drawn to the bait of Christ the man, the poet believes he used to feel the woman he knew in life through his soul. However,  just as aculeus of the divinity of the Son of God pierced the old enemy by hidden virtue, Dante’s vision was struck by way of hidden virtue moved by a woman who had risen from flesh to spirit and her beauty and virtue had increased (12:4).
   Passages, which in the Holy Scripture and the exegesis thereof, appear in a negative light have been in bonam partem changed: the seed of Frederick II, which shall give birth to the mystical Antichrist, becomes  “sementa santa” (“sacred seed”: 13:18); the “head of the beast as it were slain to death” but was healed (13:3), or the beast “which was, and is not” (17:8), are transformed when the lights of souls of the Just rise and form an eagle. The three unclean spirits like frogs (16:13-14) indicate the counterfeiters from Romena or the Florentine thieves like the first Franciscan family; the locusts that with hidden intentions sting and bite wrap the latest Capetians, like Saint John who examines Dante on charity.
   The perverse traits of the woman sitting on the beast – Babylon the Great, the mother of the fornications and the abominations of the earth – have been adapted for Pope Boniface VIII, Guido of Montefeltro, Archbishop Ruggieri hunting on the Pisan Mountain and Philip the Fair.
   However, Rome, identified as the Whore, is an ideal city in the land where the Just and the Reprobates wander together. Rome of the Just is played by Romeo di Villanova. The punishment of the haughty, abominable woman is found in «la tua Roma che piagne / vedova e sola, e dì e notte chiama: / “Cesare mio, perché non m’accompagne?”» («your Rome who, widowed and alone, / weeps bitterly; both day and night, she moans: / “My Caesar, why are you not at my side?”», Purg. VI, 112-114): the harangue delivered to German Albert who has neglected her (vv. 106, 109, 112, 115), echoes the four times Saint John was told to “Come and see” at the opening of the first four seals in the Apocalypse.
   Although Babylonian confusion appears at the level of universal power, both secular and spiritual, it still acts at an individual level where, as Olivi claimed, everyone must burn their inner whore. Hence, Dante is likewise confused (Purg. XXXI, 7, 13) when he is blamed by Beatrice for taking himself away from her and gave himself to others, almost mirroring the apocalyptic whore.
   There is no lack of sound symbolic transpositions: emperors and popes to ancient Roman families such as the Decii and Fabii, Saint Cecilia martyr on Sicily the island of grief, Charlemagne to Charon; meaningful assonances are: poisonous being Tuscan; the Romagnoles Pagani; Antenora and Arno, which are consonant with names that may be drawn from 666, the number and name of the beast; the Po; flourishing Florence; PeschieraPietola, birthplace of pious Virgil who, as a Mantuan, boasts a priest’s mantle; Statius, whose name denotes glory; the county of Ponthieu acquired by the descendants of Hugh Capet, a nest of stinging locusts; the Carisenda, which leans like charity that bows; Pope Boniface VIII, whose throne was vacant in the presence of the Son of God “quia habebat nomen boni cum esset malus”; the infernal meschite (mosques) are concordant with the mixtum, namely with the blood, no longer pure, of the strong Saracen people; the arzanà de’ Viniziani (arsenal of the Venetians) and quel di Rascia with the blind rage of the drunk. Beatrice has at least another three names (Apocalypse (beatitudo), AmenAlleluia and almost a nickname, Ben: 1:18).
   The supernal city, Heavenly Jerusalem – “quella Roma onde Cristo è romano” (“that Rome where Christ is a Roman”) – as it were transparent glass, came down out of heaven where it shattered to smithereens. Whoever lives peregrine on the “aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci” (“the threshing floor that made us so ferocious”) keeps a piece, be it a moat, wall, gate, corner, angle, measure, street or house and as a virtual citizen of the “vera città” (“true city”) contributes to the reconstruction of God’s building or the City of Dis.
   The city’s political divisions are likened to those of the Church (16:19). The faction leader acts like a bishop of a church (2:1). Italy plays the role of Judea, already green and laden with fruits, which will humbly be the last to be converted.
   The poet, albeit bitter about his exile, still loves the idea of his Florence, home of the worthy citizens who “ch’a ben far puoser li ’ngegni” (“whose minds bent toward the good”: Inf. VI, 81). In the same way Savonarola, who railed against its vices, would have considered Florence the chosen and beloved city, the new Jerusalem, saintly and peaceful. Since the workers in Florence began and finished work when the bell of Badia chimed “e terza e nona” (“tierce and nones”) “dentro da la cerchia antica” (“within her ancient ring of walls”: Par. XV, 97-98), this is likened to entering and leaving the heavenly city through the gates the angel had measured.
Courtesy is a word that denotes the Spirit’s invitation to come freely to the supper of the blissful city (22:17), and the free will to come is not unknown in the harsh and stony infernal world. Indeed, discussing the three sodomites under the rain of fire Virgil says “a costor si vuole esser cortese” (“to these one must show courtesy”) and later, recalling a city life that is no more, Iacopo Rusticucci asks: “cortesia e valor dì se dimora / ne la nostra città sì come suole, / o se del tutto se n’è gita fora” (“tell us if courtesy and valour still abide / within our city as they did when we were there / or have they disappeared completely”: Inf. XVI, 15, 67-69).
   Thomas Aquinas  discusses topics, with which he is probably familiar, albeit using a language that refers to the Lectura: he introduces the wise souls, the wisest of whom is King Solomon, the most refulgent in the Heaven of the Sun; a Spiritual Franciscan would have recognised Petrus Iohannis Olivi behind the mask.
   Dante is the new Saint John (10:9-11), Doctor of the Church who refutes the Simoniacs as if they were heretics (6:5), custodian of the only real language (that was Heber’s and is now in Saint Peter’s house: Prologue, notabile XIII), which is the erudite language that governs the people and corrects the indomitable (11:1). He follows Virgil like Peter followed Jesus to the cross (7:2); breaks the baptismal font to save someone from the deadly waters of the wrong faith (8:11); renews himself like the Franciscan plant (6:12); covers all the stages of the Apocalypse and reaches the goal before they actually ended (15:8). As Andreas Kablitz wrote, “in the view of the author the sacro poema responds to a historical moment of extreme danger, in which nothing less than the redemption of mankind is at stake” [2].
   The transferral of the primacy held by the Synagogue to the Church of Jerusalem and then from church to church up to the whore Babylon, which will be replaced by the spiritual church of the sixth period (translatio which, according to Olivi, is one of the engines of history) proves true in Oderisi of Gubbio’s statement purging pride on the first terrace of the mountain: “Credette Cimabue ne la pittura / tener lo campo, e ora ha Giotto il grido, / sì che la fama di colui è scura. / Così ha tolto l’uno a l’altro Guido / la gloria de la lingua; e forse è nato / chi l’uno e l’altro caccerà del nido (“In painting Cimabue thought he held the field, / and now it’s Giotto they acclaim – / the former only keeps a shadowed fame. / So did one Guido, from the other, wrest / the glory of our tongue – and he perhaps is born / who will chase both out the nest”: 2:5; 3:11 – Purg. XI, 94-99).

   ■ Readers may wonder how this parody has been materially produced and how were the verses written compared with the Lectura. Two aspects shall be considered. 

  a) On the one hand the poet was absolutely free to choose the significations he gave to the signs in the litteral sense, as he did so in the first verses of the poem. Based on the literal meaning “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”, the author’s age of thirty-five implies a reference to Christ as medium (mediator), whose life should be perfectly imitated and partook. “Mi ritrovai” indicates the recovery of the “first charity” abandoned though not entirely lost (2:5); “selva” means Judea, obstinate persecutor of Christ and the woman (the Church), from which she fled (12:6); “oscuradiritta” are adjectives that refer to the themes of darkness and the misinterpretation of the Scripture typical of the heretics (6:5); the phrases “smarrita … nel pensier rinova … Io non so … tant’era pien di sonno …” transfer the torpor of the Bishop of Sardis, the fifth church in Asia, to the character/author who was asked to consider the first grace received (3:3). After an anguished night spent in the forest and having rested and climbed the hill full of hope the beginning morning, he finally meets Virgil who asks Dante to follow him to an eternal place (a journey equivalent to enduring a war). Dante plays the role of Peter, who after a night of tribulation without catching any fish, felt the joy of an abundant catch and a meal but, immediately after, Jesus asked him to follow Him, that is to the cross. This passage from the Gospel of John 21:4-19 is found in a quotation from Expositio in Apocalypsim by Joachim of Fiore which opens Olivi’s exegesis of the angel of the sixth seal (Rev. 7:2).
   Hence, numerous signs in the verses reveal the doctrinal meanings, which are clear and known to those who have the key, that is the Lectura super Apocalipsim. These passages are frequently referred to in the poem, the themes of which have undergone numerous variations and many are intertwined with others. In the Convivio (IV, vi, 3-4) Dante wrote that “legare parole” is par excellence the “arte musaica” of poets.
   In the Commedia the art of poetry became a weave of signs in a work, the meaning of which, as the author stated (Epistola XIII, 20-22 [7]), “non est simplex sensus, ymo dici potest polisemos, hoc est plurium sensuum; nam primus sensus est qui habetur per litteram, alius est qui habetur per significata per litteram”. Likewise, Dante freely chose the keywords (which are signs of the meanings drawn from the Olivian exegesis) to tie together in the final vision of the Trinity and humanity of Christ: 4:2-3 (the throne set in heaven), 3:12 (the victory of the contemplatives), 21:15 (the measurement of heavenly Jerusalem), 22:17 (the free will to come).

   b) On the other hand, the poet intentionally chose to parody a work that provided a spiritual framework organized in septenaries, which is topographically verifiable in the verses in areas where the semantic referring to each period of Church history prevail, or rather the categories (status) that Olivi used to organise the exegetical material (cf. supra). If, for example, the poet wished to assign “e piedi e mano” to material concerning the second period of Church history (which corresponds to the martyrs) by means of the septenaries found in the Apocalypse, first he would have had to organise such material (namely the body of spiritual meanings belonging to that group), then analyse it, draw themes and keywords to be included as symbols and literally transfer them from Latin to the vernacular in the verses where events and characters, be they Francesca, Guido da Montefeltro or Guido del Duca, realistically play the role albeit in different circumstances (the lustful, the damned latin fraudulent counsellors or the envious souls in purgatory). Compared to the first case, sub a), in which he chose the themes of the Lectura with absolute freedom, the incidence of the parodied text, offering specific themes for the part of the exegesis referring to the period (status) which corresponds to that area of the poem, is higher. Love fluctuating like a stormy sea in the hearts of the Gentiles, who have never been without war (one of the main themes in the second period) alludes to Francesca’s words “Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende” (“Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart”). As in the case of the third and next period, that of the Doctors of the Church, who were tremendous refuters of heresies: in the Inferno the poet exerted his genius to adapt the themes for the Florentine factions, mentioned by Ciacco in the circle of gluttony (after the circle of lust: Inf. VI), the suicide souls (Inf. XIII), the simoniac popes who violated the Church (Inf. XIX), the schismatics (Inf. XXVIII) and the traitors of Christ and Caesar (Inf. XXXIV). This way of separating mankind, in his various aspects, from God and His justice is similar to the heresies that separated God’s humanity from His divinity, demeaning the former or confusing it with the latter like Sabellius and Arius who, according to Thomas Aquinas in the Heaven of the Sun, “furon come spade a le Scritture / in render torti li diritti volti” (“were like concave blades / who rendered crooked the straight face of Scriptures”, Par. XIII, 127-129).
   The themes indicating the doctrine of a particular period of Church history that prevail in areas of the sacred poem are entwined, as decided by the poet, with themes of other periods in a polysemic kaleidoscope of figures, as readers may see by scrolling through the Spiritual Topography of the Commedia.
   Such is the journey narrated in the ‘sacred’ poem, since it introduces the particular life of man on earth into the universal divine design; proceeding through history, light prevails over the initially grave shadow of the veil up to the highest point where the truth may be seen in this life. The route winds through septenary cycles; the highest period of Church history is the sixth, the long awaited novum saeculum, when political and religious institutions will be renewed and mankind with them. Retracing Dante’s route with the vademecum of the Lectura super Apocalipsim means penetrating the mystery of signs:

   Dante […] would have never dreamed of not being understood. That it is so difficult to do so should not lead us to give up in favour of free will immersed in the readers’ point of view. Hermeneutics cannot disregard an ontology of poetic creation, if it does, it is a reading of nothing. The only impressive mystery that readers of Dante find (incomparable to those worthless little mysteries that the likes of Aroux and Guénon contended) is the mystery of the sign or system of signs that encompass an entire universe in a collection of polysemous images. We have to deal with this mystery. (ALBERTO ASOR ROSA, postface to L’idea deforme. Interpretazioni esoteriche di Dante, edited by M. P. Pozzato, Milano 1989, p. 316).

   3. Parody was not unknown to Dante before he started to write the Commedia. The poet was completely engaged in sacred parodies long before [3]. A parody is an imitatio Scripturae and is neither burlesque nor caricatured, whereas “Dante’s process is hardly ironic […] it aims at anything but an allusive artistic effect. The biblical tone gives the text a mark of revealed truth […] the Dantesque parody is never innocent: ultimately to the ‘cosa venuta / da cielo in terra a miracol mostrare’ befits the same space in a polysemous exegesis as in the Holy Scriptures. This is a shift from metaphors to ontology” [4].
   Readers may verify how Dante trod the sacred path of parody since the “nove rime” in the period just before Beatrice died (1290), when Olivi (who had yet to write the Lectura super Apocalipsim) was teaching theology at the Franciscan Studium of Santa Croce in Florence (1287-1289). To provide one example, the sonnet in Vita Nova, Cavalcando l’altrier per un camino, is a parody of Jesus meeting “in specie peregrini” the disciples on the road to Emmaus  (Luke 24:13-35).
   Bonagiunta Orbicciani da Lucca, purging gluttony on the sixth terrace of the mountain, recognises that a knot had kept him, the Notaro and Guittone d’Arezzo short of the new sweet style, meaning by this that is was not, “the encumbrance or weight of the old-fashioned way, but the lack of supernatural inspiration and the missed miracle of a tongue that moves of its own accord” [5].
   The medieval practice of contrafactum, which dates back to the Coena Cypriani [6],  may be found in the adaptation of Christ’s qualities for the dammed souls or, vice versa, by rearranging passages in the Bible regarding negative, bestial and demonic characters in verses that assert the certainty of an imminent reform. The principal themes of the fifth bolgia are drawn from the fifth period of Church history, when it was almost entirely corrupt and practically turned into a new Babylon. This universal tragedy occurs in the grotesque particular of the barrators who are punished therein [7].
   The great parody entwines many other smaller, as it were, parodies in its mesh, which are well-known to scholars of Dante who recognise this or that passage from the Bible and emphasise that the poet drafted the quotes independently. With regard to Olivi, his commentary on the Apocalypse was not the only work to have undergone transformation, since Dante evidently knew other works by the friar. For example, Beatrice repeats in Par. V the words from a quaestio on vows; the Monarch is a contrafactum of those who profess the “altissima paupertas”.
   It has been noticed that Dante’s working out texts of other authors created uncertainties in the theological system of his time; in fact the idea of ​​the contingency of reality and the development of identity prevail over the analogy between Creator and creature, disrupting the traditional scheme [8]. The great parody of the Lectura super Apocalipsim means that the sacred history of the Church was transferred from a source and scattered over the human state, on the “aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci” (“the threshing floor that made us ferocious”) through an intimate metamorphosis. This marks the “fall of medieval millenarianism” creating, as Raffaello Morghen wrote, “the moral assumption, through which the fundamental experience of Christian interiority had to be turned into the secular ideals of human dignity, the creative power of individuals and the culture conceived as a means of spiritual improvement, typical of the new era of the Renaissance” [9]. The great parody highlights the reciprocal osmosis of the two natures of of Dante’s soul, like those of Faust (to use the famous definition by Benedetto Croce [10]), “torn between the persistent Middle Ages and the incipient Renaissance.

   4. Having clarified the point, readers may wonder why Dante chose to write the Commedia in this way. Moreover, was the great parody, orchestrated in a myriad of signs, meant to be understood by readers? For the time being there are three hypothetical answers:

   A) The literal sense of the Commedia contains keywords to access another text, the Lectura super Apocalipsim by Petrus Iohannis Olivi. This is a technique used in the art of memory: like imagines agentes the keywords lead readers to a work of ample doctrine they have read before, which they mentally reread paraphrased in the vernacular, extensively updated according to the poet’s intent, in verses that lend “e piedi e mano” and provide contemporary and familiar exempla.
   The literal sense of the sacred poem, intended for readers in general, is the basis of the other interpretative meanings: allegorical, moral and anagogical (which in his letter to Cangrande, Dante collectively defined as ‘mystical’ or ‘allegorical’). Dante targeted a varied readership of lay people, clerics as well as preachers and Church reformers (the Spiritual Franciscans and perhaps not only them, had the Lectura circulated in other Orders), namely those who could have reformed the Church through their preaching and converted the world with the “lingua erudita”, his vernacular. The first verse of Inf. XXXIV – “Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni” – is an “inverted rewrite […], where the rhymed word inferni is a malicious agglutination on the incipit of the famous hymn by Venantius Fortunatus” [11], that would have been perceived amongst the clerics, whereas only those who knew the parodied work could have read the signs scattered throughout the score of the new poetic Apocalypse. This readership was never established because the Franciscan Spirituals (an unorganised movement within the Franciscan order) – who should have known Olivi’s Lectura and had not been defeated in the first decade of the fourteenth century when the reformation of the Church was still feasible –  were persecuted and their book-vexillum, which was censured in 1318-1319 and condemned in 1326, became clandestine and almost disappeared. Thus, the language that expresses the inner meaning of the “sacred poem” was lost too.

   B) The existence of a “cloth” – namely another text from which the spiritual meanings of the poem may be drawn and materially formulated through words – served the purpose of keeping the warp of the ‘gown’, to quote the simile used by Saint Bernard in Par. XXXII, 139-141, consistent and compact. Whether the poem was published in groups of cantos no longer editable, or reviewed canticles, the same theological exegesis, with countless chances to change and develop the themes, laid in front of the author. The fact that the groups of tercets, which numerically correspond in various stages of the Commedia, contain keywords that lead to the same page in the exegesis indicate that whereas these words were meant as signacula to remind spiritual readers of another text, the poet also used them to number the verses where he could place them in various forms and contexts.

   C) As a third hypothesis, readers may remember Charles Southward Singleton’s statement in announcing that he had discovered that number seven was at the centre of the Commedia, revealing an astonishing hidden structure still to be deciphered. Just as the stonemasons left some beautiful friezes out of human sight on the roof of Chartres Cathedral, the inner order and comprehension of the poem was not addressed to human sight alone: “He who sees all things and so marvellously created the world in number, weight, and measure, would see that design, no matter where its place in the structure; and would surely see it as a sign that the human architect had indeed imitated that created Universe which the Divine architect had wrought for His own contemplation first of all, and for that of angels and of men” [12]. The semiotic spiritual structure of the “sacred poem”, expression of the inner self of the pilgrim, was conceived only to “honour the Almighty”.

   A is the most plausible hypothesis. In the first place, the Commedia is actually arranged in a different way than appears to readers who are not familiar with the Lectura super Apocalipsim and is based on the seven periods of Church history. These cyclical periods correspond to an inner journey, a gradual enlightenment of the truth, which is not restricted to the author only.
   In the second place, the keywords, which remind readers of the ample apocalyptic doctrine, are placed in such a way as to require the cooperation of mindful readers appealing to their imagination.
   In the third place, because in the “sacred poem”, which is proposed as a new Apocalypse written by a new St John, allegory is no longer a “truth hidden beneath a beautiful fiction” (Convivio II, i, 3), or rather beneath the literal meaning of the poem that delights readers, is replaced by the Holy Scripture’s metaphor, which, as Thomas of Aquinas said, “the very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds and as a defence against the accusation of ridicule by the impious” (Summa Theologiae, I, qu. I, a. 9). Therefore, as in the Bible, the mystical meanings are addressed to a readership who understand them.

* Translation by Susan Aulton (the verses of the Comedy as in the edition by Allen Mandelbaum).

[1] HERBERT GRUNDMANN, Dante und Joachim von Fiore. Zu Paradiso X-XII, in “Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch”, 14 (NF 5) 1932, pp. 210-256, republished in IDEM, Ausgewählte Aufsätze, 2. Joachim von Fiore, Stuttgart 1977 (Schriften der Monumenta Germaniae Historica. Band 25, 2), p. 193.

[2] ANDREAS KABLITZ, Poetics of Redemption. Dante’s Divine Comedy, translated by Fiona Elliott, Berlin/Boston 2021, p. IX.

[3] Cf. GUGLIELMO GORNI, La parodia, in  Letteratura italiana, V, Torino 1986, p. 476.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. GUGLIELMO GORNI, Il nodo della lingua e il verbo d’amore. Studi su Dante e altri Duecentisti, Firenze 1981 (Saggi di “Lettere Italiane”, XXIX), p. 40.

[6] GORNI, La parodia, p. 478.

[7] Opposed to De Sanctis and Croce, Pirandello was right in trying to find what was behind the, anything but perspicuous, play in Inf. XXI-XXII, claiming that it is “a fiction in appearance only by such a grotesque comedian, but deep down, in the poet’s innermost feelings, it is dramatic and painful more than ever”. Cf. LUIGI PIRANDELLO, La Commedia dei diavoli e la tragedia di Dante, in Idem, Saggi, poesie, scritti varii, a cura di Manlio Lo Vecchio-Musti, Verona 19652, pp. 350-351.

[8] THOMAS KLINKERT, La modernità di Dante. Prospettive semiotiche sulla Commedia, Ravenna 2021, pp. 7, 49-50.

[9] RAFFAELLO MORGHEN, Medioevo cristiano, Bari 19744, pp. 263-264.

[10] BENEDETTO CROCE, Ancora della lettura poetica di Dante (1948), in Letture di poeti e riflessioni sulla teoria e la critica della poesia, Bari 1950, pp. 3-20.

[11] GORNI, La parodia, p. 475.

[12] CHARLES S. SINGLETON, The Poet’s Number at the Center, MLN, Vol. 80, No 1. Italian Issue (1965), pp. 1-10: 10.