The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Purgatorio 24


Making Literary History

Coordinated Reading: Dante’s Poets, pp. 40-46, 85-91; “Dante and the Lyric Past,” in Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture and The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2nd ed., ed. R. Jacoff, 2007; Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the ‘Vita Nuova’.

In Purgatorio 24, the encounter with Forese Donati continues. Dante asks his friend the whereabouts of his sister Piccarda. He learns that she is in paradise, and indeed we will meet her in Paradiso 3. There are only two families whose members appear distributed throughout the three realms of the afterlife: the Donati family (Corso is destined for hell, as we learn in this canto; Forese is in Purgatorio 23-24; and Piccarda is in Paradiso 3), and the family of the emperor Frederick II (the emperor himself is in Inferno 10, among the heretics; his son Manfredi is in Purgatorio 3; and his mother the Empress Constance is with Piccarda Donati in Paradiso 3).

Purgatorio 21 and 22 were intensely focused on epic poetry, poetry with a social mission to record the history of a whole people and transmit their cultural values. Since Purgatorio 23 and the meeting with Forese, the focus has shifted to lyric love poetry: poetry centered on the interiority of one person, the lover/poet. Dante is heir to a vigorous lyric tradition that came to Sicily from Provence (for those who would like to read a synthetic overview of this tradition, see my essay “Dante and the Lyric Past”), moving up the Italian peninsula from Sicily to Tuscany. Dante now subjects this tradition to scrutiny.

In Purgatorio 24 and 26 Dante writes a historiography of the lyric tradition: what he says about other poets in these canti became the outlines of a history that has lasted to this day. You can pick up any history of Italian literature and you will find a chapter devoted to the dolce stil novo, a school of poetry Dante invents and baptizes in Purgatorio 24.57. Dante’s opinions on fellow poets, as expressed in the Vita Nuova, Convivio, De Vulgari Eloquentia, and especially the Commedia, long ago attained canonic status. I have attached a chart in which I try to distill the major components of this history as expressed in Purgatorio 24 and 26.

Forese introduces the wayfarers to a group of gluttons, including the poet Bonagiunta da Lucca (ca. 1220-1290), for whom Dante-poet has designed the task of recognizing Dante-pilgrim as the originator of the “sweet new style” of lyric love poetry. Dante has chosen for this role in the afterlife a man who in real life was adverse to the direction in which Dante would take the Italian lyric.

Bonagiunta was a poet of the Tuscan school and a follower of Guittone d’Arezzo. He wrote a sonnet criticizing Guido Guinizzelli of Bologna for “changing the manner of pleasing love poetry” by inappropriately importing into the lyric the philosophical wisdom of Bologna (“’l senno di Bologna” in the penultimate verse):

  Voi ch’avete mutata la mainera
de li piagenti ditti de l’amore
de la forma dell’esser là dov’era,
per avansare ogn’altro trovatore,
  avete fatto como la lumera,
ch’a le scure partite dà sprendore,
ma non quine ove luce l’alta spera,
la quale avansa e passa di chiarore.
  Così passate voi di sottigliansa,
e non si può trovar chi ben ispogna,
cotant’è iscura vostra parlatura.
  Ed è tenuta grave ’nsomilliansa,
ancor che ’l senno vegna da Bologna,
traier canson per forsa di scritura.
  You, who have modified the style
of writing pleasant poems of love
from how they used to be composed,
to best all other lyricists,
  have acted like a beam of light
that fills the darkness with its rays,
but not here where the great star flares,
which outshines all in brilliancy.
  Your subtleties are so pronounced
that none can make out what you mean,
because your speech is so obscure.
  And it is thought quite fanciful,
despite Bologna’s learnedness,
to quote theology in verse. (trans. Richard Lansing)

The point of the historical Bonagiunta is that love poetry was more pleasing before poets got the new-fangled idea of writing poetry that was tinged with philosophy and theology.

Of course the philosophical and theological trend of the Italian lyric tradition is the trend that leads ultimately to Dante’s idea that the lyric love lady—Beatrice—can lead to God. In other words, it is the trend that leads to the Commedia. So, Dante here casts a poet of the old school, one who was explicitly against the new ways, as the celebrator of the creation of a new kind of poetry, a “sweet new style” or ”dolce stil novo” (Purg. 24.57). This new style is seen as having begun with Dante’s own youthful canzone Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore:

  Ma dì s’i’ veggio qui colui che fore
trasse le nove rime, cominciando
“Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore”. (Purg. 24.49-51)
  But tell me if the man whom I see here
is he who brought the new rhymes forth, beginning:
“Ladies who have intelligence of love.”

The canzone Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore is the canzone that Dante placed in the Vita Nuova as marker of the breakthrough moment when he leaves behind the tired conventions of desiring a reward from the lady and instead locates his desire only in what he can do for her, and thus in “quelle parole che lodano la donna mia” (“those words that praise my lady”). Donne ch’avete, which you can read with my commentary and in Richard Lansing’s wonderful translation in Dante’s Lyric Poetry, was written when Dante was a young man and already posits a fully theologized figure of the lady. She is described as desired in highest heaven: “Madonna è disiata in sommo cielo” (Donne ch’avete, 29). In other words, Donne ch’avete is a poem that moves the love lyric in precisely the directions that the historical Bonagiunta da Lucca rejected.

Dante now explains to Bonagiunta that he gets his inspiration directly from love:

  E io a lui: “I’ mi son un che, quando
Amor mi spira, noto, e a quel modo
ch’e’ ditta dentro vo significando”. (Purg. 24.52-54)
  I answered: “I am one who, when Love breathes
in me, takes note; what he, within, dictates,
I, in that way, without, would speak and shape.”

As a response to the pilgrim’s mystical and totally a-historical claim that he writes poetry by following the dictates of love, Bonagiunta replies with a ready-made historiography, somehow intuited from the pilgrim’s opaque remarks:

  «O frate, issa vegg’io», diss’elli, «il nodo
che ’l Notaro e Guittone e me ritenne
di qua dal dolce stil novo ch’i’ odo! (Purg. 24.55-57)
  “O brother, now I see,” he said, “the knot
that kept the Notary, Guittone, and me
short of the sweet new manner that I hear.

Naming three previous important leaders of Italian lyric schools—the “Notary” or Giacomo da Lentini, a Sicilian poet, and the Tuscan poets himself and Guittone d’Arezzo—Bonagiunta declares that all three fell short of the “sweet new style” that he has just heard.

Dante’s historiographic categories in Purgatorio 24 and 26 became Italian literary history; to this day anthologies of Italian literature use Dante’s label dolce stil novo and arrange poets on either side of the great divide—the “nodo”—stipulated by Dante in this passage.

Structurally, the encounter with the Tuscan poet Bonagiunta da Lucca is embedded within the overarching encounter with Dante’s friend (and fellow Florentine) Forese Donati. After the episode with Bonagiunta the narrative returns to Forese, who prophesies the destruction of his brother Corso Donati. The Donati family is one of the magnate families whose power struggles kept Florence in a constant state of conflict; Corso was a power broker and man of violence. The encounter between Dante and his old friend Forese ends however on an elegiac note, reminiscent of the preceding canto, as Forese reminds Dante that time is precious in purgatory—“che ’l tempo è caro / in questo regno” (for time is dear in this realm [Purg. 24.91-92])—and then takes his leave.

In conclusion the travelers come to another inverted tree, like the one we saw toward the end of Purgatorio 22, and this time it is specified that these trees on the terrace of gluttony are grafts from the tree of which Eve ate. In the following terzina the themes of prohibition and transgression—the themes that Dante introduces into his poem as UIyssean—are clearly aligned with the biblical injunction to Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil:

  Trapassate oltre sanza farvi presso:
legno è più sù che fu morso da Eva,
e questa pianta si levò da esso. (Purg. 24.115-17)
  Continue on, but don’t draw close to it;
there is a tree above from which Eve ate,
and from that tree above, this plant was raised.

Given that the focus is on a “tree above from which Eve ate”, gluttony is not simply overeating in a literal sense. The canto ends with the concept of measured and correct hunger: the Beatitude’s refrain “esuriendo sempre quanto è giusto” (“hungering always in just measure” [Purg. 24.154]) hearkens back to the “sacra fame dell’oro” (“sacred hunger for gold”) of Purgatorio 22.40-41. Dante has found in the trees of the terrace of gluttony a new way to yoke excessive desire for knowledge with the excessive desire purged in the top three terraces. In other words he has found in the trees a new way of figuring the nodo that preoccupies him in these canti: epistemological incontinence.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Purgatorio 24 : Making Literary History." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading