BRUNETTO LATINO AND DANTE ALIGHIERI
III. THE VITA NUOVA:
PARADIGMS OF PILGRIMAGE1
he Vita Nuova is, as translator Barbara Reynolds notes, a work by a poet for poets about poetry.2 It is also, as Charles Singleton in his Essay on the Vita Nuova, has ably demonstrated, a book about the Book.3 It is thus self-conscious, self-referential, and self-reflective, at the same time that it is a Janus text, written with ambages, riddling ambiguities, deliberate doublenesses of meaning (Aeneid VI.29,9; De vulgari eloquentia I.10). It is a hermeneutic and cryptographic text and much of its encoding has to do with pilgrimage. It was written in a period when critical theory was theology, when sacred texts were mirrored in secular texts, and when reconciling ambages were mandated by cultural pluralism.
The hermeneutic of the Vita Nuova can be uncoded through an archeology of its text;4 of its intertextuality with a prior text which in turn describes a geography alien and foreign to Dante's, one being of Israel in Asia, the other of the Sinai in Africa, as well as being of his native Florence and of Rome in Europe. Dante creates upon the Old and New Testaments using Exodus and Emmaus paradigms a palimpsest, reshaping the Bible's Hebrew, Greek and Latin into Florentine Italian. I would argue also that the cultural context explains both the text and its method, its cryptography. This essay will attempt to unravel those parts of its riddle that have to do with pilgrimage and its paradigms.
The thirteenth century is the century of the "sweet new style," the dolce stil nuovo, of the Gothic, which borrowed motifs from the Saracen, observed in Spain, Sicily, and the Jerusalem Kingdom, where the Christian culture encountered through its crusades and its pilgrimages the rich pluralism of the other Peoples of the Book, and made that ultra-civilized material ultra-Christian in contradistinction to the Romanesque, which it now chose to interpret as Oldness, whether Roman or Judaic, Hellenic or Hebraic. Panofsky has shown how this period made use of these two styles in a coded language, conveying Oldness and Newness side by side, the one fulfilling the other, not destroying it.5 Auerbach and Jameson have shown how medieval theology brought together disparate modes for reading texts into a complementarity, a rich co-existence that continued until the stystem became too unwieldy, overloaded, and contradictory for readers in more modern times.6
Pilgrimage was seen by theologians, Philo Judaeus among them, as paideia, as education. The Vita Nuova is associated both with pilgrimage and with education, and is even said to have been given by Dante Alighieri to his teacher, Brunetto Latino, accompanied by a sonnet which speaks of its text as a Janus one.7 This text functions as epistemology, of both its writer and its reader; both are required to crack its code, its enigma.8 Related works through time are Augustine's Confessions, Boethius' Consolation, Wireker's Speculum Stultorum, Erasmus' Praise of Folly, More's Utopia, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Joyce's Portrait. These works use authorial personae and specula, masks and mirors, and are learnedly playful, childishly arcane. They pivot upon a fulcrum, upon conversions ("Tolle, lege, tolle, lege"); they are bookish and about education; and they contain equal and opposite meanings in their dialectic mode.
The thirteenth century is the century of Aristotle, whom Brunetto Latino taught to Dante Alighieri, and whose works were likewise borrowed from the Arabs who had preserved the Greek texts when the Christians had not, and who was now made ultra-orthodox by Aquinas after a bitter, initial rejection of his writings as heretical. What is witnessed here is a paradigm shift of great importance to Western culture, albeit censored and disguised.9 Latino and Dante are master and disciple, each in turn conveying that new and initially suspect and controversial learning, and who both reconcile the Greco-Arabic mode to the Judeo-Christian one in a dialectic. This willingness to accept a doubleness of thought further encouraged the marriage of the Old and New Testaments as justification of the similar juxtaposition of philosophy and theology, the Greco-Roman and the Judeo-Christian. Beryl Smalley has discussed this aspect of medieval Biblical study and Gabriel Astrick has demonstrated its presence in medieval universities' coats of arms.10
This doubleness of the thirteenth century, this complementarity, is deeply embedded in the Vita Nuova which is a Gothic and Averroistic text that plays upon prior texts. In the Vita Nuova Dante is deconstructing his own earlier poetry, finding deeper layers of meanings to it than he at first suspected were there. He is playing with its doubleness, its intertextuality, to God's text and to Aristotle's. Its text will teach him God's Commandments given to Moses and Aaron and Aristotle's Ethics; theology and philosophy; Hebraism and Hellenism. The Vita Nuova is thus a work that presents a map of misreading, as a Janus text with another and opposite meaning behind its apparent surface text, both being of value, like some manuscript palimpsest where a Romanesque liturgical text has been overlaid by a Gothic Ovid or, as in the actual case of a Brunetto Latino manuscript, where a thirteenth-century legal text has been scraped clean and upon it placed Latino's translation of Aristotle's Ethics, acquired by him in Spain and copied out in France, where he was exiled following the Battle of Montaperti and before that of Benevento, as in Yale's Marston 28.
The thirteenth is the century of the university and all these reconciled texts, philosophical and theological, Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian, are crucial for the medieval lecture hall and for those pedagogic establishments set up in legal chambers and chanceries in the cities lacking universities. We know that Brunetto Latino taught his students in Arras and in Florence in this manner, from texts acquired in quasi-Saracen Spain, and that one of his students was the young Dante Alighieri, another having been Guido Cavalcanti.11
The Vita Nuova can be taught in courses on
medieval pilgrimage and poetry, and students in them shown a
way of uncoding its text through the paradigms and even
literal maps of pilgrimage. There are two major paradigms of
Judeo-Christian pilgrimage which are used in medieval literary
texts: the Emmaus and the Exodus patterns. It should be
previously explained to students in such a course that the
Hebraic world had required three pilgrimages annually to the
Temple in Jerusalem of all Jewish males, at Passover,
Pentecost, and Tabernacles, all of which ritually replicated
the Exodus pilgrimaging and at which pilgrims laid palms on
the horns of the Temple's altar. Then it can be shown how
these Hebraic pilgrimages liturgically, archeologically,
inform the later Christian ones, all of these shaping the Vita
Nuova as well as other major pilgrimage texts.
I. The Emmaus Paradigm
The Emmaus paradigm, of the teller of the tale who is at first foolish and who later comes to comprehend the presence of Jesus as the pilgrim, will be a pilgrimage device Dante will borrow from Luke. It is his authorial mantle for the self-conscious, self-referential, self-reflective telling of the Vita Nuova, its pilgrim narration. That garb will be donned again for the Commedia, Dante there being as Luke, Virgil, his Cleophas and likewise Aaron, in Dante's figural structuring.
The liturgical drama, the Officium Peregrinorum, based upon Luke 24, had powerfully presented the paradoxes of recognition and resurrection. Dante is to use that dramatic episode again, intertextually, in Purgatorio XXI.7-11,
Ed ecco, sì come ne scrive Lucawhere he has two poets, Virgil and Dante, be met by a third, Statius. The encounter of two pilgrims by a third is at last made overtly as the Emmaus paradigm; but previously, throughout Hell and Purgatory, each meeting of the two, Virgil and Dante, with others had covertly been in that Emmaus matrix of pilgrimage. For the Emmaus tale is explicitly about initial non-recognition through folly and sin; it is a Pilgrim's Progress.
che Cristo apparve a' due ch'erano in via,
già surto de la sepulcral buca
[And, just as Luke had written of it, that Christ appeared to the two who were on the road, having already risen from the sepulchral cave],
In the medieval tradition the second, unnamed disciple becomes a youthful, beardless Luke, himself the future author and Gospeler of that pilgrim tale, while the first was the older and bearded Cleophas. Luke's text speaks of these two whose "oculi autem illorum tenebantur, ne eum agnoscerunt" [But their eyes were holden that they should not know him] (24.16), as they walked together telling pilgrim tales, "dum fabularentur" [while fabling] (24.15). Cleophas says to the unrecognized Jesus: "Tu solus peregrinus es in Jerusalem, et non cognovisti quae facta sunt in illa his diebus?" [Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?] (24.18). Jesus, in pilgrim disguise in medieval depictions of this scene, answers: "O stulti et tardi corde ad credendum in omnibus quae locuti sunt prophetae?" [O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken] (25). And he begins by telling them of Exodus, the tale of Moses and his wilderness pilgrimage, as a prophecy concerning himself. Then the recognition scene occurs in the blessing and breaking of bread at the inn. This is dramatic irony; it is related to the riddle and the ambages. Perceptions are reversed. Tricks are played upon the personae and the readers.
The Emmaus tale is encountered twice in the Vita Nuova, and the first time it is presented it is misread, misunderstood, and unrecognized. It is presented in the ninth section of the work. The Vita Nuova calls great attention to numerology and above all to that number, nine. The title of the work, in Latin, and repeated in rubrication at the opening of the text, puns upon "new" and "nine," in contra-distinction to the oldness of eight, the octagonal font, the pagan Emperor Octavian/Augustus who saw at Ara Coeli a vision of the Virgin and Child; these two numbers, eight and nine, then become, in medieval numerology, the numbers of conversion. Augustine similarly had had his conversion occur in the eighth book of the Confessions, his baptism into the new life in the ninth. Beatrice is equated with "nine" (XXXVIII- XXXIX). Dante is here drawing attention to his code and to the means by which it can be cracked.
In that chapter Dante has gone away from Florence (just as Luke and Cleophas were journeying away from Jerusalem), when on the road he meets Amore disguised as a pilgrim: "E però lo dolcissimo segnore . . . ne la mia immaginazione apparve come peregrino leggeramente vestito e di vili drappi" [And therefore the most sweet lord . . . in my mind appeared like a pilgrim lightly clad and with shabby garb]. Dante is, for a pilgrim, improperly on horseback: "Cavalcando l'altr'ier per un cammino" [Riding out the other day along a road]; the pilgrim Amore is correctly on foot, and probably barefoot. (John Donne will play with that paradox in his "Good Friday Riding Westward" four centuries after.)
There is a further relation to the Emmaus paradigm than might be apparent to a modern reader. The monastic liturgical dramas not only made use of Psalm 113 in the Easter Monday and Tuesday performances of the Officium Peregrinorum; they also prefaced that play with a hymn, "Jesu, Amor et Desiderium" [Jesus, Love and Desire].13 Also, the pilgrimage to Rome, if ROMA was spelled backwards, was to AMOR, Love. For these reasons many uses of the Emmaus paradigm in medieval texts yoked the erotic to the Christological, including Tristan's encounter with two Venetian pilgrims on the shores of Tintagel, upon his pilgrimage not to Christ but to Isolde, and Petrarch's pilgrimage to Laura, Chaucer's Troilus' failed tryst to Criseyde, Shakespeare's Romeo's pilgrimage to Juliet.14 Partly what lies behind the medieval game with pilgrimage, which can and should be chaste, but which is mocked as being of lust, is the statement in I Peter 2.11: "Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul." Prohibitions give rise to mocking misrule, to satirical saturnalia. Dante, in the razio to his poem, stresses the Emmaus-like sudden disappearance of Amore. But the appearance of his Amore, at this stage of the work, is more that of Cupid than that of Christ. The Christological references are deliberately kept cloudy and unclear at this stage of the pilgrimage of the Vita Nuova, both for its Luke-like persona, who is foolish and slow to believe, and for its reader who mirrors him.
The other half of this tally comes in Vita Nuova XL with the sonnet's lines:
Deh peregrini che pensosi andate,Its commentary goes on to speak of pilgrims journeying from Florence to Rome to see "quella imagine benedetta la quale Iesu Cristo lasciò a noi per essemplo de la sua bellissima figura" [that blessed image that Jesus Christ has left for us as a pattern of his most beautiful face]. It is generally assumed that this is the Veronica veil shown each Easter Friday to pilgrims at St. Peter's. But an investigation of pilgrimage practices in Rome in the thirteenth century indicates instead that this is the face of Christ in the apse mosaic of St. John Lateran which was said to have floated miraculously into the basilica through the golden door.16 To view this face, the Santo Volto, gave the pilgrim, even in the thirteenth century, a most valuable indulgence. The Lateran, then, was of far greater importance and sanctity than was the Vatican. In Vita Nuova IX that Christ imaging was obscure; in Vita Nuova XL it is revealed, the Pilgrim's Progress of the work deliberately being that of I Corinthians 13.12: "Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate, tunc autem facie ad faciem; nunc cognosco ex parte, tunc autem cognoscam sicut et cognitus sum" [For now we see through a glass darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known].17
forse di cosa che non v'è presente,
venite voi da sì lontana gente,
com'a la vista voi ne dimostrate,
che non piangete quando voi passate
per lo suo mezzo la città dolente,
come quelle persone che neente
par che 'ntendesser la sua gravitate?
[O pilgrims, meditating as you go, On matters it may be, not near at hand, Have you then journeyed from so far a land, As from your aspect one may plainly know, That in the sorrowing city's midst you show No sign of grief, but onward tearless wend, Like people who, it seems, can understand No part of all its grievous weight of woe?15]
Coupled with this pilgrimage towards Rome Dante gives us a most careful definition of the various kinds of pilgrims according to their geographic goals:
. . . chiamansi palmieri in quanto vanno oltremare, là onde molte volte recano la palma; chiamansi peregrini in quanto vanno a la casa di Galizia, però che la sepultura di sa' Iacopo fue più lontana de la sua patria che c'alcuno altro apostolo; chiamansi romei in quanto vanno a Roma, là ove questi cu'io chiamo peregrini andavano.But Dante is implying that his own city, through which these pilgrims are traveling, is another pilgrim city. In quoting Jeremiah: "Quomodo sedet sola civitas" [How doth the city sit solitary], he is drawing an analogy between Florence and Jerusalem; the one city for the loss of Beatrice mirroring that other city for the death of Christ, in the manner of Christ's seeing prophecies concerning himself in the Old Testament as fulfilled in the New. Dante is thus drawing Florence into the Emmaus paradigm twice over, the first time obscurely, the second time with clarity. E. H. Gombrich spoke, in Art and Illusion, of this capacity to substitute one city for another, in art, and in printing; so also did Emile Mâle.
[They are called Palmers who go overseas, where they often bring back the palm; they are called Pilgrims who go to the shrine in Galicia, for the tomb of St. James is the farthest from his homeland than is that of any other apostle; they are called Roamers who go to Rome, where those whom I call Pilgrims were going].
II. The Exodus Paradigm
Dante makes use of the Stations of the Exodus as a book of memory, a theatre of memory, a pilgrimage of memory, for the mnemonic cryptography of the Vita Nuova, a system of categories for his forty-two divisions to the work, having it become both a concealed Old Testament pilgrimage in the Wilderness and a to-be-revealed New Testament one, to both of which he gives a New Life, a vita nuova.19 I shall first discuss the general patterns and then the specific one of Numbers 33's Stations of the Exodus, which correspond, John V. Fleming once remarked, to Dante's divisions of the Vita Nuova.20 Medieval culture, we know, delighted in such numerological paradigms.21 There would also be some awareness of the names of the forty-two stations' Hebrew names and their meanings as words, as being as well letters as numbers, thus giving us Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, a pilgrimage consonance of the languages of the Book.
The Exodus is a story of liberation, of paideia, the Bildungsroman of Israel, and Dante will carefully define it as such in the Letter to Can Grande. It was a historical event, but it was also defined in literary terms by Augustine and others. We recall that Augustine had argued that it was permissable to use pagan poetry in Christian sermons because God had told the Israelites to borrow Egyptian gold and take it with them in the Wilderness (Exodus 12.35).22 That gold was first used to fashion the Golden Calf, when the Israelites came to Aaron, saying "Up, make us gods" (32.1). In so doing, the Israelites had broken the commandment against idolatry, against graven images. In their dancing naked about the Golden Calf they were also breaking the commandment against adultery, against lust. They were most severely punished for these acts. The same Egyptian gold was then used for the adorning of the Ark which housed the Law with these Commandments against idolatry and adultery among the others. Paul had preached a sermon to the pagan Athenians on the Areopagus and had used in that Christian sermon quotations from Greek tragic poetry (Acts 17). The Church Fathers used these two episodes to argue that pagan material, like Egyptian gold, like Greek poetry, could be used for Christian purposes. Thus the Exodus was seen both as a historical liberation, and also as an allegory about poetry and its doubleness. Dante will thus make use of Beatrice as Golden Calf and as Tabernacle of the Ark. She represents both poetry and theology, lust and charity.
The Middle Ages and its cathedrals and summae took most seriously the scriptural statement that God had created the world in number, weight and measure: "omnia in mensura et numero et pondere disposuisti" (Wisdom of Solomon 11.20). Christ's age at the Crucifixion was thirty-three. The book of Numbers, for its thirty-third chapter, proceeds to list the forty-two Stations of the Exodus. Those forty-two stations were of great importance both in the Hebraic world and in the Christian one. They were traveled by pilgrims. In imitation of them pilgrimage stations were established among the churches in Rome, including the seven major basilicae. In imitation of both of these, twelve pilgrimage stations were eventually established in Jerusalem, by the Franciscans, to mark the twelve events concerning the Crucifixion, the Stations of the Cross. The listing from Numbers 33 was discussed, with the meanings of the Hebrew names, from Jerome and Bede, in pilgrim guidebooks and in the Glossa Ordinaria.23 It functioned like gematria, where letters are numbers and vice versa, the numbers and names here, rather than just the letters, being consonant in an intertextuality of time and space upon the World as Book written by God. For Dante it may have become such a system as Umberto Eco was later to have his Name of the Rose library use, there based upon the Apocalypse: here, by Dante, for the Vita Nuova, upon Numbers 33.
It would be wise to discuss two of the pilgrim accounts side by side with Dante's cryptographic text. One such account, Anonymous Pilgrim VI (Pseudo-Beda), is of the twelfth century; the other, Fetellus, is of the thirteenth century and thus likely more corrupt. One is uncertain what account Dante actually may have himself used. Available to him could also have been Jerome's listing and translation, which is repeated in the Glossa Ordinaria. The Glossa text is especially interesting as it conflates Old and New Testament meanings together, seeing all the events in Numbers 33 in relation to Christ. John Demaray also notes Paolo Amaducci's La fonte della Divina commedia which sought to parallel Peter Damian's De Quadragesima, et quadraginta duabus Hebraeorum mansionibus to that text in its entirety in a far-fetched manner.24 To my knowledge no attempt has been made to apply the forty-two Stations of the Exodus carefully to the Vita Nuova as a map, a subtext, or palimpsest to it.
There is a certain amount of confusion between these pilgrimage accounts and those of Numbers 33 but they all make cryptographic, structural sense of the Vita Nuova, as if a version of one of them had been at Dante's elbow as he wrote that text. One should, perhaps, quest for likely manuscripts in Florentine libraries that Dante could have used. What we shall see is that in some cases there is a very exact parallel, in others not so; as if Dante had used the Exodus Stations as a rough outline for his own work, much as frescoes of pilgrimage at Tavant were first sketched in with sanguine, then covered over, that covering now being lost and revealing the original sanguine cartoons. Some editions of the Vita Nuova change the numbering from forty-two to forty-three chapters, but not many do so.
The Victorian editor of Fetellus, James Rose MacPherson, noted of that text: "At this point he introduces a long statement as to the route of the Exodus, in which he mentions some remarkable legends, and gives many strange interpretations of the names of the stations in the Desert of the Wanderings. These explanations are at times altogether ludicrous, but not more so than was general up to a comparatively recent period."25 One must admit that the credulous tone of the accounts strikes a modern reader as odd. We, today, are nominalists. Umberto Eco's system is only accidentally consonant with the events that transpire in his medieval detective novel Il nome della rosa, though he designed them. But the early medieval mind believed that names, places, and their meanings, their etymologies, were designed, created, by God. It is that spirit which informs these accounts.
John Demaray, in order to write The Invention of Dante's Commedia, actually traveled the Exodus route, visiting the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai. He applies the Exodus Stations to the Commedia, but not to the Vita Nuova.26 He found that pilgrim guides were still repeating these formulae orally almost verbatim as they are also given in medieval pilgrim guidebooks.27 There is an intense retention and conservatism about a landscape upon which pilgrimages are performed, where the World and the Book, as Singleton has shown in his Essay on the Vita Nuova, become one. There is, in fact, a magnificent icon at St. Catherine's Monastery of Christ with the Book, in which one senses that he is analogously also Moses with the Law, and that the Book contains Numbers 33 as well as Luke 24.28 This is Dante's "libro de la mia memoria," his book of memory.
Let us turn to the Vita Nuova's text and examine it with the pilgrim palimpsests of Numbers 33 at our elbow, using that as a code book for the cryptography of the work and see what occurs. Dante begins by noting that his own palimpsest begins with "una rubrica la quale dice: Incipit vita nova" [a rubricated line which states: "Here begins the New Life"]. In the Latin Vulgate the Red Sea is the "mare Rubrum." Psalm 113, used at the Easter baptism, mentions it. The Red Sea's crossing and baptism were seen as analogous by the Church. This first section of the Vita Nuova represents the beginning of Dante's Exodus-like pilgrimage from Egypt to Israel, from confusion to clarity, from birth through life to salvation, a pilgrimage he can make after first "spoiling the Egyptians." Pseudo-Beda gives us the date of the beginning of Numbers 33 as the second day after Easter, the liturgical date for the reading of the Gospel account of the Doubting of Thomas, an episode often included in the Easter Monday and also Tuesday Officium Peregrinorum. In that drama Christ tells Thomas that he has seen him but not believed. All these aspects can be found echoed in Dante's text.
The second station is that of Succoth, of the Tabernacle. In Exodus and elsewhere we are told that the predominant color of the Tabernacle of the Ark is red, crimson, scarlet. This is the garb of Beatrice: "Apparve vestita di nobilissimo colore, umile ed onesto, sanguigno." The Tabernacle of the Ark was to be housed in the Holy of Holies, the Sancta Sanctorum, within the Jerusalem Temple. Dante here says that "lo quale dimore ne la secretissima camera de lo cuore" [which dwells in the inmost depths, the most secret room, of the heart]. What is interesting here is that Beatrice is associated with Miriam, Mary, and Christ; and the Exodus Vulgate account gives Miriam's name as Mary, and the Apocrypha tells the story of the Virgin spinning and weaving the red cloth for the Temple's curtains, being herself the Arca Dei, the Ark of God.29 Dante's roles here become that of Moses before the burning bush, that of Aaron permitted to enter the Holy of Holies but once a year. Thus the "Egyptian gold" of Homer is particularly apt: "Ella non parea figliuola d'uomo mortale, ma di deo" [She appeared not as the daughter of a mortal but of God]. Bernard had spoken of the Virgin Mary as the "daughter of her son," and Dante was to repeat that paradox (Paradiso XXXIII.1-36). In this system neither character nor gender need remain fixed; the palimpsest can vary the dramatis personae. Here Dante responds to the sight of Beatrice as did Moses to the sight of God. Medieval iconography associated Moses' sight of God in the burning bush as analogous to Augustus/Octavius' vision of the Virgin and Child. The icon at St. Catherine's Monastery may give us God and Moses mirroring each other. The Glossa Ordinaria emphatically relates Moses to Christ: "Moses, id est Christus."
The third station, Etham, is that of the pillar of cloud and fire, of "bravery," "perfection," and "solitude." Here Dante meets the miraculous Beatrice first garbed in white. Then Love presents her to him in a vision of "una nebula di colore di fuoco" [in a cloud the color of fire], wrapped in a crimson cloth, "uno drappo sanguigno." At first Dante is afraid, faint hearted, and so also is Beatrice timid and terrified, rather than either being brave. In order to achieve this vision, in which he is told "Ego dominus tuus" [I am your lord], he has withdrawn to the solitude of his room. The correspondences to these sections are again quite clear.
The fourth place is Phaihiroth, the place where reeds grow, and here Dante becomes so weak and frail, "di sì fraile e debole condizione," that his friends are greatly concerned. He is as "frail as a reed." The fifth station is of Marah, meaning "bitterness," but also associated punningly with "Mary." Dante here speaks of basking in the sight of the Queen of Glory, "la regina de la gloria," an epithet usually reserved for the Virgin Mary, but here, quite clearly, used of Beatrice. The sixth is the station of Helim, noted for its twelve fountains and seventy palm trees. I wonder if there are manuscripts that speak of "settanta," rather than of "sessanta" ladies, seventy rather than sixty ladies to whom he writes his serventese. The seventh station is of the journey that the Israelites make passing by the windings of the Red Sea shore. Dante speaks of traveling twice here, in his vernacular sonnet, "O voi che per la via d'Amor passate,/attendete e guardate/s'elli è dolore alcun, quanto'l mio, grave" [O you who on the road of Love pass by, Attend and see If any grief there be as heavy as mine]30, which in turn is echoed in, or rather echoes, the words of Jeremiah given in ponderous Latin: "O vos omnes qui transitis per viam, attendite et videte si est dolor sicut dolor meus" [All ye that pass by, behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow]. These words are frequently engraved beneath Crucifixes. But Dante is employing religious language blasphemously, in a Bakhtinian manner, for the uses, here, of lust, rather than charity.
The eighth station, of the desert of Sim, means "bramble" and "hatred." In this chapter, Dante mourns the death of a young and very beautiful lady, and reviles death as his enemy whom he curses: "Morte villana, di pietà nemica/ . . . di te blasmar la lingua s'affatica" [Villanous death, the enemy of pity . . . Cursing you wearies my tongue]. The ninth station of Dephca, meaning "knocking" or "pulsating," can only achieve that through the sound of the horse's hooves in "Cavalcando" [Riding out the other day]. In other accounts it also has the meaning of "salus," "health," and "salvation." Amore appears to Dante as they both journey beside a beautiful river. Later we come to realize that Amore is also Christ, "salus noster." The next station, the tenth, is Alus, signifying "discontent," and it describes Dante's unhappiness at being denied Beatrice's salutation. It was here that the Israelites complained about their hunger and were given quail and manna.
The eleventh station, Raphidim, or "desolation of the brave," is where the Israelites falsely worship the idol of the Golden Calf. Dante, here, goes to pay homage to Beatrice and feels his heart burning within him (that Emmaus yoking of cupidity and charity) at seeing her. The text takes Dante's two different perceptions of Beatrice, with lust, with love, and has one and the same woman represent for him, first the Golden Calf, fashioned out of the spoils of the Egyptians, and then the Tabernacle of the Ark, fashioned from the same gold and silver borrowed from the Egyptians. She is the wife of another, he, an adulterer, desiring to break the Mosaic Commandments. We are used to reading the Vita Nuova in the context of "Courtly Love," not realizing that that was a nineteenth-century misreading of Andreas Capellanus' De arte honeste amandi, then read romantically, not with the irony its author presented. It is a question of perspective, of which parts of the texts to read, just one layer, or its doubleness. D. W. Robertson has demonstrated this quality in his "Doctrine of Charity in Medieval Literary Gardens," a work of literary criticism that examines the doubleness of medieval texts within their cultural contexts. We know, from Pietro Alighieri's commentary to his father's magnum opus that Dante owned a copy of Capellanus and read that text ironically.31 Dante here describes himself as ponderous and overborne, by Love, although he pretends to welcome this intolerable situation.
The twelfth station is the Wilderness of Sinai, where Moses returned from the mountain to his people with the tables of the Law, and where the Tabernacle was made after the Golden Calf was destroyed. Dante speaks of "returning" to his subject in this chapter, and of withdrawing to a solitary place to weep because of Beatrice's denial to him of her salutation. A young man in the whitest of garments comes to him, telling him to cast aside all his idols: "Fili mi, tempus est ut pretermictantur simulacra nostra" [My son, it is time to put away our graven images]. The word "simulacra" is also stressed in Psalm 113. Dante has made of Beatrice, or of his poetry concerning her, such a simulacra, such an idol, such a Golden Calf, when she is actually an icon, an ark, an imago of blessedness. Dante-persona has confused signifier and signified and thus become an idolator. Love then tells Dante that he is suffering from a Boethian loss of perspective: "Ego tamquam centrum circuli, cui simili modo se habent circumferentiae partes: tu autem non sic." I shall deliberately leave that line untranslated in order to preserve its hermeneutic quality, its aspect of privilege, its closed circle intact and unbroken.
The thirteenth station, the "sepulchres of cupidity," where the Israelites yearned for the fleshpots of Egypt, has Dante writing love poetry, not knowing which direction to take and craving pity from his lady, whom he says he speaks of as if in a scornful way. Dante is making himself like one of those rebellious Egypt-loving Israelites, who resented Moses' lordship over them, the pilgrimage they had to make through the Wilderness, and the manna and quail with which they were fed. The fourteenth station, of Asseroth, is where Aaron and Miriam expressed disapproval of Moses' marriage. In this chapter Dante attends a wedding at which Beatrice is also present. At that marriage of Moses to the Ethiopian king's daughter, the Lord punishes Miriam with leprosy. The name of this station is said to mean "offense." In this scene we witness Dante suddenly afflicted with illness, as if playing the role of Miriam, while Beatrice assumes that of Moses towards him. Aaron in Numbers 12 then has to lead Miriam out of the camp and away from the Tabernacle for a space of time. Dante is led forth from the gathering at which Beatrice is present, a friend here functioning like Aaron.
Station fifteen, Rethma, does not correspond very exactly with Vita Nuova XV, though it does continue with references to Dante's nearly fatal illness, as if to relate this to Miriam's disease. The next station, Remonphares, means the "division of the pomegranate." Aaron's robe was embroidered with pomegranates and bells; Robert Browning picked up that allusion, as if to his own poems, in Bells and Pomegranates. Is Dante here referring to the divisions of his Aaron-like poems with which he celebrates and worships at the Ark that is Beatrice after an initial fabricating of her as his Golden Calf? If so, his role as Aaron the fabricator of Beatrice as a Golden Calf idol to be falsely worshiped, is as equally rudely shattered by God and by Beatrice, his Moses, who proceeds to write his tale in a reverse manner through her Christ-like death, thus shaping the Vita Nuova literally into the new life, into Newness rather than Oldness. The text usurps its poet.
In the seventeenth chapter, Dante writes of finding a new theme for his poetry, speaking no longer of himself (in that self-pitying manner Boethius had used, yet mocked, as after him had the writers of sonnets down the ages), but of more noble concerns. This station, Lebna, is interpreted as "whitening." The eighteenth station, Rechsa, means "bridle," which Dante shows us with his self-conscious, self-referential writing block bridling his craft: "Reflecting deeply on this, it seemed to me that I had undertaken too lofty a theme for my powers, so much so that I was afraid to enter upon it; and so I remained for several days desiring to write and afraid to begin."32 The nineteenth station, Celata, means "assembly," or "church," and also "beginning" in some sources. Dante speaks of beginning to write, and what he writes is a sonnet addressed to an assembly of ladies who know by insight what love is. The twentieth station, Mount Sepher, is of "beauty" or "Christ." Three times Vita Nuova XX speaks of beauty and in its conclusion of an "omo valente," a man of worth.
Station twenty-one, Araba, means "miracle," and here we are told at the beginning of Beatrice miraculously working to bring the lover into existence from his potentiality, and it concludes by speaking of her miraculous smile, in the Italian, "mirabile." The twenty-second station, Maceloth, is, again, "assembly" or "church" and in Vita Nuova XXII we hear of ladies assembled to be with Beatrice while she mourns the death of her father. Station twenty-three, Taath, means "fear," and in Vita Nuova XXIII we witness Dante's terror at his illness and his belief that he is going to die, followed by his dream of Beatrice's Christ-like death at which the sun and stars are eclipsed and the birds flying through the air fall dead to the ground which is shaking with earthquakes. Another meaning for this station is "patience." Throughout this section references are made both to fear and to comfort, "paura" and consolation.
The twenty-fourth station, Thare, means "pasture." The very beautiful twenty-fourth chapter of the Vita Nuova, in which Dante has Beatrice be preceded by his friend's lady, Guido Cavalcanti's Giovanna, does not seem to have much reference to the Exodus structuring, unless it be to the iconography of St. John the Baptist, "Ego vox clamantis in deserto: parate viam domini," as a shepherd pasturing sheep, "Ecce agnus dei." The twenty-fifth, Methca, is of sweetness, and here again we find ourselves in the world of Guido Cavalcanti and his poetic circle of the "sweet new style," the dolce stil nuovo. (Guido's teacher had likewise been Brunetto Latino.) The twenty-sixth station, Hesmona, is said to mean hastening, and in Vita Nuova XXVI we learn of people running to see Beatrice as she walked down the street, "le persone correano per vedere lei."
The twenty-seventh station, Asseroch, means "bonds," "discipline." Here Dante speaks of being held in bondage to Love. The twenty-eighth is of the "children of need." Here we see a Florence widowed of her Beatrice, the city left orphaned and in need. Twenty-nine, Gadgad, means "messenger," "girding," "circumcision." In this chapter Dante relates the concept of Beatrice as a nine to astronomy according to both pagan Ptolemy and to Christian doctrine; an astronomy that makes use of spheres within spheres, wheels within wheels. Thirty, Gabatath, is of "goodness" and "Christ." Dante once more quotes from Jeremiah on Jerusalem as left widowed without Christ and also speaks of his friendship with Cavalcanti and of their desire to write in the vernacular (the sweet new style, the dolce stil nuovo) rather than in Latin. For this reason, Dante says, he cannot give the other Latin prophecies concerning Christ.
The thirty-first station, Hebron, means "passing." Here Dante speaks of Beatrice's passing, "Ita n'è Beatrice," and of his sorrow. The thirty-second station, Asiongaber, means men's counsel. Here Beatrice's brother asks Dante to write a sonnet for them both, seeking consolation for her death from their friends. In thirty-three, Cades, Miriam dies and is buried, to be followed at the next station by her brother Aaron's death. In Vita Nuova XXXIII we learn of Dante speaking with his other great friend, Beatrice's brother, and composing a poem to be spoken by both her brother and by himself as her servant and worshiper. In the Glossa to Numbers 33 Aaron and in Vita Nuova XXXIII Beatrice's brother are spoken of as weeping. In thirty-four Aaron dies on Mount Hor and his tomb is not found, while God and his angels have charge over him. In Vita Nuova XXXIV Dante is drawing pictures of angels. (There is a splendid and most self-referential Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting of that scene in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum.) It is the anniversary of Beatrice's death.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dante painting Angels, Ashmolean Museum. We should be very grateful for a fine copy of this painting to hang in the Casa di Dante in Florence. Dante Gabriel Rossetti's father taught Dante at the University of London, lived in political exile from Italy.
The thirty-fifth station is Selmona in some accounts, Obeth in others, that latter having for meaning "prophetess." Here Dante sees the woman looking at him from a window who comprehends his state. The thirty-sixth is of Fynon, where the Israelites again complained about food and where serpents bit them. The thirty-seventh is again Obeth and is again about this lady. These stations, from the thirty-fifth to the thirty-eighth, no longer make sense. But with thirty-nine, once again, the consonance is clear, Dybongad meaning "temptation of eyes," "shutting up," and "confusion." Dante here speaks of his shame at his eyes and their diseased state. His previous vision of her first appearance to him is now, at the ninth hour, repeated and he is filled with shame at the ways in which he has misinterpreted her, misreading her Exodus map as it were into an Egyptian-backsliding direction rather than the one of the Jerusalem pilgrimage.
The next station is of "shame in the streets." Here Dante sees the pilgrims who journey towards Rome walking down Florentine streets; the Exodus pattern here intersects with the Emmaus one in this fugue. The forty-first station is Mount Abarim, the "mount of those who pass away," where Moses died, without physically reaching the Promised Land. Here Dante speaks of Beatrice's spiritual pilgrimage into the heavens. The next station is Mount Moab, near Jericho by the Jordan river, meaning "cut off," and Galgala, meaning "revelation." This is where Dante ends his Vita Nuova, cutting it off with the revelation of Beatrice in heaven contemplating the Santo Volto, the holy face of God, in whose image she is, and whose icon now, rather than idol, can be reflected in Dante's own Book of Memory, the pilgrim map of both Exodus and Emmaus, given by analogues of Aaron and Moses, Luke and Christ, in both writer and reader.
These Exodus and Emmaus paradigms, though they are by no means the whole of the Vita Nuova, are certainly part of Dante's crisscross blueprint for his work. Medieval texts often self-reflectively embedded within themselves their critical theory. Dante did this. Chaucer also did so. Modern critical theorists now often only discuss theory, without reference to literary texts. Dante, in the Vita Nuova, tells of his friendship for Guido Cavalcanti and of their intention of writing in the vernacular in the dolce stil nuovo. Those landscapes of pilgrimage, in Dante's days, were envisioned as being of the Saracens' culture. To map them into a Florentine text was to reconcile the Peoples of the Book, Judaism, Christendom, and Islam.
We know of the charming Eastertide sonnet which Dante probably wrote to Brunetto Latino, his teacher and Guido's, who had taught both of them Averroistic texts acquired in Spain, to accompany his gift of the Vita Nuova to Brunetto. Another sonnet, mourning Brunetto's death, speaks of a pilgrimage in the wilderness.33 Brunetto himself had written a pilgrimage work, Il Tesoretto, modeled on Boethius, Alanus ab Insulis, and the Roman de la Rose, in which Latino described himself learning of his exile from Florence in 1260 while in the pilgrimage Pass of Roncesvalles. Deeply sorrowing he then loses his way, taking his path through a different wood, and coming into a dream landscape in which he is taught morals and ethics by Ovid, Ptolemy, and a host of others. Latino, like his two famous students, insisted on writing in the vernacular, and translated Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Cicero into French and Italian for the benefit of his students. He had happened to be in the Pass of Roncesvalles because he was on his way home from the court of Alfonso el Sabio (whose father's title had been the King of the Three Religions). There Brunetto had acquired much knowledge and Arabic learning concerning Ptolemy and Aristotle. He already knew Cicero. He would have learned also of Alfonso's own writings. In Alfonso's legal treatise, Las Siete Partidas, is a definition of the pilgrim that will be echoed by that of Dante in the Vita Nuova; and then again by Cesare Ripa in the Nova Iconologia.
Dante is thus part of a world that knows of the cultures of all three Peoples of the Book, the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic, into which can also be interjected the learning of the Greco-Roman world. All these cultures prized education and they learned from each other pluralistically. All these cultures also prized pilgrimage, the Christian pilgrimage to St. James of Compostela answering that of the Muslims to Cordova and Mecca, mirroring that of Israelites journeying to Jerusalem.
Nor will the Vita Nuova be Dante's last attempt at a pilgrimage work. It is his schoolroom exercise, his apprentice work.34 Dante's Vita Nuova has about it as great a sense of Brunetto Latino's teaching presence as does Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man convey John Henry Newman's educational and pluralistic concepts. Both Dante and Joyce rebel against, yet make great use of, their pedagogues' teachings. Joyce in his work plays similar cryptographic and intertextual games, having his text refer to Augustine's Confessions (his middle name was Augustine, therefore the confession is at the middle of the book) and to Newman's Apologia pro vita sua (Stephen at the beginning must apologize, ordered to do so by his mother, with his aunt Dante then chanting a child's song about this.)
The Commedia, following upon the Vita Nuova, will also use the paradigm of Exodus and Emmaus. These are parts of the patterns in the carpet of Dante's work. In them Dante is as a new Aaron who becomes a Moses, a new Cleophas who becomes a Luke, journeying from an earthly Florence that is also an Egypt to a heavenly Rome that is also a Jerusalem. Both the geography and allegory of pilgrimage underlie these books based upon the Book of God's Word and the Book of God's World. Dante creates in the secular and profane vernacular an intertextuality with the sacred and divine Latin, Greek, and Hebrew texts of the Bible, with both Luke 24's code to the Gospels and Numbers 33's code to the Exodus. (Those codes spoke more prophetically than he knew. He would literally become the exile of his pilgrim definition of Vita Nuova XI.) Dante employs both pilgrimage codes, of Exodus and of Emmaus, from which to construct the Janus hermeneutic, the ambages pulcerrima, of his New Life, written in the "sweet new style," the dolce stil nuovo, of Gothic Florentine at war with Rome and the Romanesque.
published in Dante Studies, 103 (1985), 103-124.
2 Dante Alighieri, La Vita Nuova, trans. Barbara Reynolds (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 11.
3 Charles S. Singleton, An Essay on the Vita Nuova (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1949), pp 25-54.
4 Michel Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge and The Discourse on Language (New York: Pantheon, 1982); Fredric Jameson, "Metacommentary," PMLA, 86 (1971), 9-17.
5 Erwin Panofsky, Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origin and Character (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), I.131-148.
6 Erich Auerbach, "Figura," in Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, trans. Ralph Manheim (New York: Meridian, 1959), pp. 11-76; "Metacommentary," pp. 9-10.
7 Dante's sonnet to Brunetto Latino, accompanying his Easter gift to him of the manuscript of the Vita Nuova, as translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Dante and his Circle with the Italian Poets Preceding Him (London: Ellis and Elvey, 1892), p. 96; discussed in Brunetto Latini, Il Tesoretto, ed. and trans. Julia Bolton Holloway (New York: Garland, 1987), p. xviii; Italian text in Raccolta di rime antiche toscane (Palermo: Assenzio, 1817), II.32:
Master Brunetto, this my little maid8 Stanley E. Fish, "Progress in The Pilgrim's Progress," in Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 224-64; Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982).
Is come to spend her Easter-tide with you;
Not that she reckons feasting as her due,-
Whose need is hardly to be fed, but read.
Not in a hurry can her sense be weigh'd.
Nor mid the jests of any noisy crew:
Ah! and she wants a little coaxing too
Before she'll get into another's head.
But if you do not find her meaning clear,
You've many Brother Alberts hard at hand,
Whose wisdom will respond to any call.
Consult with them and do not laugh at her;
And if she still is hard to understand,
Apply to Master Janus last of all.
I will arise and go now, manteled,34 Lawrence Lipking, The Life of the Poet: Beginning and Ending Poetic Careers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 20-34, who says similarly of Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell, p. 18, that it "contains whole libraries . . . a parody bible . . . it offers a complete sacred code in fiercely concentrated form."
As I journey, like a pilgrim,
Until I find a forest wilderness.
I wish to change wine into water,
My delicate bread to acorns, and
To weep evening, night, and morning.
Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice
Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest
Epilogue: Attica State Prison,
Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim
This is a Chapter from the Book, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer, created, 1993; 'Sweet New Style' e-book Website created, Pentecost 2003-10
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