Intertextual Dante

Dante by Luca Signorelli
This portrait of Dante by Luca Signorelli was described by Christopher Kleinhenz as the image of “Dante doing intertextuality.” [1] Dante is sitting at a desk with two books open and two more on the table. With his right finger, he points to a passage in one of the open books, and his left is on a line in the other, as indicating the connection between the two passages. This is a familiar practice for us readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy: having the text of the Comedy open and next to it another text, often a desk full of editions, looking for and trying to understand the connection between two passages. The Intertextual Dante will allow us to do this reading and researching online.

Explore the Intertextual Dante

The Intertextual Dante is a digital edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy that highlights its intertextual passages. The first phase focuses on Ovidian intertextuality in Dante’s Inferno, the first canticle of the Divine Comedy. More texts and authors will be added later. The site offers a new way to read and research intertextual passages in Dante’s Comedy. It transforms the concept of the paper concordance, a list of corresponding passages, into an interactive digital reading and research tool that allows users to read the intertextual passages in context.

The current version of the Intertextual Dante allows users to:

  • read the corresponding passages in Dante’s and Ovid’s texts immediately side by side;
  • scroll up and down in both works to read the two corresponding passages in their respective textual contexts;
  • search for intertextual passages in specific cantos of the Divine Comedy or individual Ovidian poems and books, and even stories in the Metamorphoses;
  • explore where and how often Dante features Ovidian allusions in his word choice, characters, places, or events, and in similes.

(More detailed instructions on how the site works)

In what follows, I discuss the origin of the project; the different categories of intertextuality used on this site; and the future of the project.

The Intertextual Dante: From Paper Concordances to a Digital Concordance

The most helpful resources for anyone interested in intertextuality are concordances. This term is used for two kinds of lists that focus on text and word reuse. The first, more common use of the word is an alphabetical list of the words that appear in the work(s) of an author with references to the specific passages in which they occur. For highly allusive, well-studied works of literature, there exist intertextual concordances that list all the instances where that work refers to others; and this is the sense in which the term is used here. Such concordances on paper list the corresponding passages in the briefest form: citations from the two works. The reader then needs to consult the editions of these works to compare both passages.

Intertextual concordances are structured in different ways. Some concordances first list the source text and then give the citation of the corresponding passage in the work inspired by it. Others do it the other way around. Each way of presentation offers a different view on the distribution of the intertextual passages. For instance, in his concordance of Ovidian passages in Dante’s oeuvre, Edward Moore first lists citations from Ovid in the order they appear in his writings, and then the corresponding passages in Dante’s works (Studies in Dante. First series: Scripture and Classical Authors in Dante. Oxford: Clarendon, 1896). My own paper concordance, which was part of my dissertation research on Ovidian intertextuality in the Italian Middle Ages and the starting point of this digital project, followed the chronology of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Both concordances offer easy access to the distribution of one text. A quick count of the entries of Moore’s concordance reveals which book of the Metamorphoses Dante used the most (Book 4); in my paper concordance you can easily find in which canto of the Divine Comedy we find the most Ovidian allusions (Inferno 25). These resources, however, can highlight only one direction of the intertextuality.

The Intertextual Dante does more than just making the paper concordance available online. The first difference with the paper version is the visualization of the entries: instead of having to open two separate editions and look for the corresponding passages, users now see these passages immediately side by side and highlighted on the screen. (On the site, all intertextual passages are indicated with the icon of a pointing finger. Clicking on this icon brings up the two corresponding passages in Dante and Ovid.) While the corresponding passages are highlighted, a brief comment appears on top of the site explaining the connection between them. This is the first way in which the digital concordance provides context.

Context, entirely missing in paper concordances, is of crucial importance in the study of intertextual passages. Scholars may disagree about the precise definition of intertextuality, but they all concur that its study should not be limited to simply detecting similar passages in different texts, but also, and more importantly, discuss the new meaning created by this text reuse. Context is an important aspect of this discussion. Dante was a very attentive reader of the texts he used in the Divine Comedy, and a careful reading of the larger textual context from which he selected his passages is often central to interpreting Dante’s text reuse. The Intertextual Dante greatly facilitates this kind of contextualized reading and research. Users of the site see precisely where the corresponding passages appear in the two texts: the detailed tables of contents of Dante’s and Ovid’s works (on the far left and right side of the page) quickly place the intertextual passages in the correct canto of the Divine Comedy and the poem or book within Ovid’s oeuvre. Both texts are scrollable: users can read what comes before and after each highlighted intertextual passage by scrolling up or down in both texts as much as desired and explore the context of both corresponding passages.

Both texts can be researched in different ways. The clickable tables of content on the right and left side are a first entry point for specific research. Dante’s Divine Comedy is divided into canticles and cantos, and Ovid’s works are broken down into poems (Amores, Heroides, Tristia, and Epistulae ex Ponto), books (Ars amatoria, Remedia amoris, Metamorphoses, and Fasti), and stories (Metamorphoses). Users can search for intertextual passages in any of the entries in these tables of content. The other search option on the site are the dropdown menus at the bottom of the page. Each of these menus contains all the corresponding passages belonging to a specific category of intertextuality: word choice, character, event, place, simile. The following section discusses these categories in more detail.

The Categories

No two intertextual concordances of the same text are identical, because their compilers, based on their own definitions of intertextuality, made different choices about which passages to include. The most common criterion for inclusion is the focus on the degree of similarity between the source text and the passage inspired by it. For instance, Edward Moore, one of the scholars who documented the rationale behind his concordance’s system of organization the most, indicates how certain it was that Dante had a specific source text in mind, dividing his entries into direct quotations (“certain”), obvious references or imitations (“almost certain”), and allusions and reminiscences (“probable but not beyond doubt”). Moore’s categories, however, give us little additional about the Ovidian entries, since most of them fall under the same category of “obvious references or imitations.” For that reason, the Intertextual Dante works with different categories that are more attentive to Dante’s specific use of his Ovidian sources.

These categories are word choice, characters/places/events, and similes. Language, however, is the overarching criterion: I establish all Ovidian intertextuality in the Divine Comedy based on the verbal similarities between Dante’s text and his source texts. Whereas the more obvious references to Ovid’s works include names of characters, places, or events, the word choice category contains the more obscure references, those allusions tucked away into the text of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In most cases, there are at least two verbal connections (literal translations or synonyms in Italian) between Ovid’s and Dante’s texts, but sometimes it can be just one word that establishes the connection.

Characters/events/places is the second category. On the site they can be searched separately. The criteria for inclusion are the same as for the word choice category: for instance, the shared mention of a classical character’s name is not sufficient to establish a connection between Ovid’s and Dante’s texts; Dante needs to include particular words or details to indicate that Ovid’s Latin text, and not another version of the story, was his source of inspiration. A good example here is Mirra, one of the imposters in Inf. 30: Dante calls her “scellerata” (Inf. 30.38) and, as also noted in the comment to these corresponding passages on the site, also Ovid describes Myrrha’s love for her father as a “scelus” (Met. 10.314, 315).

Similes, a highly distinguishing feature of Dante’s writing, are the third and last category. Again, only those instances are included where Dante’s language indicates his knowledge of the Ovidian text. For instance, in Inf. 27 Dante compares the confused sound of the flame of Guido da Montefeltro to the sound made by Perillos, the creator and first victim of the Sicilian bull, a torture device (Inf. 27.7-15). When looking at the corresponding Ovidian passage on the site (Ars amatoria 1.653-566), we note that both Dante and Ovid call the punishment of the creator of the device right (“fu dritto” in Inf. 27.8; “iustus . . . fuit” in Ars amatoria 1.655).

The categories are mainly used because they provide more information about specific stylistic, structural, and rhetorical aspects of Dante’s text reuse that the general numbers easily mask. A focus on Dante’s use of Ovid-inspired similes, for instance, shows that he inserts about the same amount in all three canticles of the Divine Comedy, while the total number of intertextual passages decreases from Inferno to Paradiso. (The information on the intertextual passages in Purgatorio and Paradiso will be added to the site soon.) This is the kind of information that gets lost when looking just at the general numbers. In fact, at first glance, Inferno appears to be the most Ovidian canticle: it is the canticle where the Latin poet appears as a character (Inf. 4.90) and is mentioned by name (Inf. 25.97), and many of the souls the pilgrim encounters are modelled after Ovid’s descriptions. And it is the canticle with the highest total number of intertextual passages. But, as the example of Dante’s use of the simile mentioned above showed, when we refine these numbers by looking at the various categories of text reuse, different pictures emerge.

These categories are much more in line with the approach of scholars such as Michelangelo Picone, Madison U. Sowell, and Kevin Brownlee, who in their writings on Dante’s use of Ovid proposed more specific distinctions (especially Brownlee’s attention to Dante’s use of the simile), than with the categories used by the authors of intertextual concordances.[2] Those last were nevertheless important sources for the digital concordance on the Intertextual Dante. We cannot forget that the detection of intertextual passages is rarely attributed to the first person to make that connection: in practice, the references to Dante’s source texts are repeated in edition after edition of the Divine Comedy without attribution. Only when a scholar comes across a previously unnoticed corresponding passage that is rich enough for further discussion in a separate essay, the notes in an edition or commentary may indicate that. But intertextual concordances are under the name of the scholars who assembled them, and they should be credited here. The corresponding passages included on this site come from this long tradition of collecting Dante’s references to other texts, complemented with my own findings. Existing concordance entries were evaluated against my own definition of intertextuality, and then organized according to the different categories described above.

I mainly worked with the following sources:

  • Gioachino Szombathely, Dante e Ovidio: Studio. Trieste: Lloyd Austro-Ungarico, 1888;
  • Edward Moore, Studies in Dante. First series: Scripture and Classical Authors in Dante. Oxford: Clarendon, 1896;
  • Ettore Paratore, “Ovidio e Dante.” In Nuovi saggi danteschi, 47-100. Rome: A. Signorelli, 1973;
  • Steno Vazzana, “Ovidio è il terzo.” In Dante e “la bella scola,” 123-47. Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 2002.

Moving Forward

The current version of the Intertextual Dante features all intertextual passages in Dante’s Inferno and all of Ovid’s works. The first additions will be the Ovidian passages in Purgatorio and Paradiso. But the Intertextual Dante won’t be limited to only Ovidian source texts: the project’s ultimate goal is to create digital editions of the Divine Comedy and Dante’s other works that highlight all of their classical, biblical, and vernacular sources. We look forward to adding more authors and texts in the future: the more works the Intertextual Dante will feature, the more powerful and insightful the site will become.


[1] Christopher Kleinhenz, “Perspectives on Intertextuality in Dante’s Divina Commedia,” Romance Quarterly 54, no. 3 (2007): 183-94, at 184.

[2] See, for instance, Michelangelo Picone, “L’Ovidio di Dante,” in Dante e la “bella scola” della poesia: autorità e sfida poetica, ed. Amilcare A. Iannucci (Ravenna: Longo, 1993), 107-44; Dante and Ovid: Essays in Intertextuality, ed. Madison U. Sowell (Binghamton: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1991); Kevin Brownlee, “Dante and the Classical Poets,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dante, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 100-19.

Written by: Julie Van Peteghem, Editor Intertextual Dante