- Dante’s personal, original, and anomalous conception of Limbo: Dante’s is a radical idea, different from all others in the history of Limbo
- we need to historicize the idea of Limbo to appreciate Dante’s originality (see the historiographic note on Padoan and Franceschini at the end of this page, as well as the citation of Foster)
- Limbo came about as a way to accommodate the feelings of the laity regarding the injustice of exclusion from salvation, especially with respect to unbaptized infants
- in Dante’s case, the claims of justice lead him to conceive Limbo as a space to honor virtuous non-Christians, especially pagans of classical antiquity
- Limbo as Dante conceives it houses virtuous pagans of classical antiquity who lived before Christianity but “did not sin” (“ch’ei non peccaro” [Inf. 4.34]): these pagans include great poets (e.g. Homer, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan) and philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato)
- Limbo as Dante conceives it also houses some contemporary virtuous non-Christians, notably three Muslims: a general and Sultan of Egypt, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), and two philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd)
- the issue of virtuous pagans who “did not sin” involves Dante’s guide Virgilio and will be rendered more complicated by the presence in the Commedia of saved pagans, starting with Cato of Utica in Purgatorio 1 and culminating with Ripheus the Trojan in Paradiso 20
- from the concept of exclusion with its enormous consequences follows Dante’s concern for the issue of cultural transmission: textual and oral transmission carries ideas across cultural boundaries and allows access to Christian teachings
 Inferno 4 treats the first circle of Dante’s Hell, dedicated to the space that theologians call “Limbo”. As I will explain in this commentary, Dante’s treatment of Limbo is anomalous within the history of this idea. Dante’s way of conceiving Limbo is personal and original: it is a radical conceptualization, different from all others in the history of the idea of Limbo. On this issue, see Giorgio Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” and my essay, “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32” (full citations are in Coordinated Reading).
 The word Limbo means “edge” or “hem”, as in the hem of an article of clothing. Limbo was imagined by theologians to be a privileged zone on the very margin of Hell where the only punishment is deprivation: these souls are deprived of God and of heaven. This is a place of no physical torment, “di duol senza martìri” (of sorrow without torment [Inf. 4.28]).
 Within the Catholic imaginary, to be placed in Limbo is to be granted favored status. I stress that Limbo was imagined as palliative and consolatory because only by understanding the logic of Limbo within the Catholic imaginary can the reader of the Commedia grasp the stunning nature of Dante’s radical revision of the traditional idea of Limbo. Essentially, the idea of Limbo reveals the cultural punctum dolens that requires consolation: for most Catholics throughout history that point of suffering has been the idea of unmitigated damnation for unbaptized babies. We learn from Inferno 4 that the punctum dolens for Dante is not the unbaptized baby but the virtuous non-Christian.
 Dante stands alone in the history of the idea of Limbo in opening this palliative space to virtuous non-Christians: adults of non-Christian faiths. We cannot overstate what this move tells us about the boldness of his cultural and moral imagination.
 Because there is never any physical torment in Limbo, as traditionally conceived, and because Dante in particular emphasizes the special status of the souls whom he places in his non-traditional Limbo, some commentators and readers of Inferno 4 over the years have resisted the idea that Limbo is the first circle of Dante’s Hell. However, Dante is explicit on this score, telling us that we have entered “nel primo cerchio che l’abisso cigne” (in the first circle girding the abyss [Inf. 4.24]).
 Dante in fact exploits the tension between the special status that he accords the souls of his Limbo and the reality that this is the first circle of his Hell. As I write in The Undivine Comedy:
Locating it with numerical precision, Dante has distinguished Limbo in a way that seems straightforward, clear, and not susceptible to confusion: it is the first circle of Hell. And yet, master of the manipulation of narrative — i.e., textual time — to create dialectical perspectives, Dante will dedicate the rest of canto 4 to making us disbelieve this simple fact, and indeed, how many readers “forget” that Limbo is Hell’s first circle! (The Undivine Comedy, p. 37)
 The Catholic religion posited a limbus patrum (“Limbo of the fathers”), the temporary condition of Old Testament saints as they awaited their liberation by Christ, and the limbus infantum or limbus puerorum (“Limbo of infants” or “Limbo of children”), the permanent condition of infants and children who died prior to baptism, hence not washed of original sin. Traditionally, therefore, theologians placed two groups of souls in Limbo, the Biblical righteous of the Old Testament and infants who die unbaptized:
- the Biblical righteous, Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament. These souls from the Old Testament died long before the life and death of Christ; they died, therefore, before Christ opened the way to salvation. According to Catholic theology, they resided in Limbo from the time of death until Christ rescued them by descending into Hell and liberating them. Christ’s “Harrowing of Hell” (Latin Descensus Christi ad Inferos), which will be a plot-point in Inferno 4 and throughout Inferno, occurred after His Crucifixion and before His Resurrection. The Biblical righteous are destined for glory; indeed, Christ transports them from Limbo to Paradise. Of souls who belong to this group, in Inferno 4 Dante lists the following: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Jacob with his father Isaac, his twelve sons, and his wife Rachel. In Paradiso 9, Dante adds another character to this list, the biblical prostitute Rahab, defined as the first soul to be received by the heaven of Venus: “Da questo cielo . . . pria ch’altr’ alma / del trïunfo di Cristo fu assunta” (By this heaven, she was received before any other soul of Christ’s triumph [Par. 9.118–20]).
- unbaptized infants: infants who died before receiving the sacrament of baptism, which washes away original sin, and who therefore are denied salvation. The unbaptized infants are not of great interest to Dante, placing him at variance with the traditional view of Limbo: in an orthodox conception of Limbo, the unbaptized infants are the only souls who remain after Christ liberates the Old Testament righteous. This group is still of great interest to theologians today (see, at the end of this commentary, the discussion of the recent Vatican document that reforms Limbo).
 The Biblical righteous were liberated from Limbo by Christ when he harrowed Hell, according to Dante in 34 CE (this is the date for the Harrowing of Hell that Dante supplies in Inferno 21). Therefore, by the time of Dante’s journey in 1300 CE, the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs were long removed from Hell and lodged in Paradise. In 1300, a theologically orthodox Limbo should house only unbaptized infants. After the removal of the Biblical righteous, there should be no adults whatsoever.
 Dante’s divergence from orthodoxy is signaled in the description of the crowds of souls gathered here, composed “of infants and of women and of men”: “d’infanti e di femmine e di viri” (Inf. 4.30). Of the three groups of souls here specified — infants, women, men — only infants belong in a theologically correct Limbo. The presence of adults here — femmine and viri — indicates that Dante has gone in a different and idiosyncratic direction.
 Who are these adults — femmine and viri, women and men — in Dante’s Limbo? They are the souls of great non-Christians who lived lives of extreme moral virtue and intellectual accomplishment. Dante’s idiosyncratic handling of Limbo, his deviation from theological orthodoxy, thus becomes an index: with it we can measure his passionate reverence for towering humanistic achievement, irrespective of the faith from which such achievement springs.
 In Virgilio’s explanation, these are the souls of those who committed no personal sin of their own but who were not baptized, hence not released from original sin, the “umana colpa” or “human sin” of Purgatorio 7.33. Virgilio is very clear that the souls in Limbo did not sin: “ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi, / non basta, perché non ebber battesmo” (they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, / that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism [Inf. 4.34-5]). According to this account, the failure of these souls to worship Christ is due simply and only to their having lived prior to Christ’s birth: “dinanzi al cristianesmo” (before Christianity [Inf. 4.37]).
 Virgilio tells Dante that he himself belongs to this group of pagans who lived “dinanzi al cristianesmo” — “e di questi cotai son io medesmo” (and of such spirits I myself am one [Inf. 4.39]) — and restates categorically that the only “defects” of the souls of Limbo are the ones named above: “Per tai difetti, non per altro rio, / semo perduti” (For these defects, and for no other evil, / we now are lost [Inf. 4.40-1]). Their “defects” are thus that they were not baptized and failed to worship Christ. Their failure, according to this narrative, occurred through no fault of their own, but because of the unfortunate timing of their birth.
 However, this narrative has its shortcomings. Virgilio’s clear, straightforward, and consoling explanation for his damnation will become less clear and far less consoling when we arrive in Purgatory and discover, in Purgatorio 1, that the realm of Christian purgation is governed by a saved pagan: Cato of Utica, the Roman statesman for whom Dante had expressed great reverence already in his philosophical treatise, Convivio (circa 1304-1307).
 In Purgatorio 1 we learn explicitly that Dante believes that virtuous pagans can be saved and also that, as poet, he goes out of his way to save them: there will be more saved pagans in Dante’s poem after Cato. Indeed the last saved pagans of the Commedia, the Emperor Trajan and Ripheus the Trojan, will be introduced in the heaven of justice, in Paradiso 20. We will deal with the specific issues raised by each of the saved pagans as we encounter them.
 By going out of his way to save pagans in the Commedia, Dante enormously complicates and enriches the Commedia’s Virgilio-narrative. As a result of residing in Limbo, Virgilio personally witnessed Christ’s arrival and victory, the arrival of the “powerful one” who was able to liberate his fellow inmates: “Io era nuovo in questo stato, / quando ci vidi venire un possente” (I was new-entered on this state / when I beheld a Great Lord enter here [Inf. 4.52–53]). Dante here cleverly connects the dates of Vergil’s and Christ’s deaths: Vergil died in 19 BCE and Christ died and harrowed Hell in 34 CE. There was thus an interval of fifty-three years between Virgilio’s arrival in Limbo and Christ’s arrival in Limbo. By reminding us that Virgilio, as a resident of Limbo, arrived in the first circle in 19 BCE, Dante lets us know that Virgilio knows that it is possible to be liberated from hell, that such salvation can happen, but also that it did not happen for him.
 Christ’s Harrowing of Hell is the crucial interruption in the eternity of Limbo; suturing his fictive Virgilio to this event, as he does throughout Inferno, Dante highlights the limitations of this particular virtuous pagan. The link between Virgilio and Christ’s Harrowing of Hell is frequently activated during the journey through the first realm, since, as we shall see, ruins caused by the earthquake at the Harrowing often serve as backdrops to episodes that highlight Virgilio’s limitations as a pagan guide.
 The possible presence of saved pagans in Dante’s afterworld is subtly anticipated by the pilgrim’s question to his guide in Inferno 4: has any soul ever departed Limbo for blessedness? And, in particular, has any soul ever done so by her or his own merit or by the merit of someone else: “uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto /o per altrui, che poi fosse beato?” (did any ever go — by his own merit / or others’ — from this place toward blessedness? [Inf. 4.49-50]).
 On the topic of the Commedia’s saved pagans, let me note that the total exclusion of pagans from Paradise would not have been problematic for Dante’s original readers. According to Kenelm Foster, while the doctrine of fides implicita or implicit grace existed, contemporary theologians tended to ignore it: “Catholic theology by and large did not much concern itself with the ultimate destiny, in God’s sight, of the pagan world whether before or since the coming of Christ. . . . The concept itself of fides implicita was not lacking . . . but it was hardly a central preoccupation of theologians, nor, in particular, do its implications for an assessment of the spiritual state of the world outside Christendom seem to have been taken very seriously” (Kenelm Foster, ”The Two Dantes,” pp. 171-172, cited in Coordinated Reading).
 In sum, Dante deviates from orthodoxy in caring so much for virtuous pagans that: 1) he creates a unique Limbo that he designates as their dwelling-place in Hell, and 2) he then goes even further, conceptually, and decides to save some of them. He does this in a cultural context in which his treatment is utterly anomalous. No one would have noticed had virtuous pagans not received anomalous special status in the first circle of Dante’s Hell and no one would have complained had Dante excluded saved pagans from Paradise altogether.
* * *
 Having reconfigured Limbo as a space that houses virtuous non-Christians, Dante now alters the landscape of Hell as a further means of indicating the special status of these souls. He had already stipulated the darkness of the abyss: “Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa” (dark and deep and filled with mist [Inf. 4.10]). Now he designates for the first circle of Hell a light that conquers the darkness: “io vidi un foco / ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia” (I beheld a fire / that carved out a hemisphere from the shadows [Inf. 4.68-9]). Moving towards this light, he finds a “noble castle” (Inf. 4.106), within which is a beautiful meadow where the honorable souls are assembled: a “loco aperto, luminoso e alto, / sì che veder si potien tutti quanti” (an open place both high and filled with light, / so we could see all those who were assembled [Inf. 4.116-17]).
 The pilgrim poses a query based on his perception that these souls are treated differently from other souls: ‘‘questi chi son c’hanno cotanta onranza, / che dal modo de li altri li diparte’’ (who are these souls whose dignity has kept / their way of being, separate from the rest? [Inf. 4.74-5]). The remarkable answer is that the honor these souls accrued while alive was such as to win them grace from heaven:
E quelli a me: “L’onrata nominanza, che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita, grazia acquista in ciel che sì li avanza”. (Inf. 4.76-8)
And he to me: “The honor of their name which echoes up above within your life, gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them”.
 We note the word “nominanza”, derived from “nome” (name). While the names of the cowardly souls in the previous canto are erased from memory, the names of the virtuous pagans live on, winning them glory on earth and even, says Dante — displaying his humanistic values — a special status in Hell.Their names live on, because texts record them. Therefore, if the lists of names in Inferno 4 seem somewhat tedious to read, we can literally “enliven” them. We need only consider that these names are the talismans of well-lived lives that are also well recorded in books: each name summons much cultural history and cultural memory, for which the name stands as a synecdoche.
 We remember that the “catalogue of ships” is an epic trope from the Iliad (a trope that Dante knew from the Aeneid’s catalogues, modeled on Homer’s), and that for Homer, as for Vergil and for Dante, the lists of names testify to the responsibility of the epic poet to preserve a society and a culture. Names thwart time and defy oblivion. Dante himself, who will be embraced by the great poets of antiquity as one of their group, “the sixth among such intellects” — “sesto tra cotanto senno” (Inf. 4.102) — will carry out this epic mission through the Florentine and Italian names recorded in the Commedia, most explicitly in “the Florentine phonebook” of Paradiso 16.
 The word “nominanza” is an important one in the Commedia, as we will see in Purgatorio 11. It hearkens back always to its first use here in Inferno 4, and thus to the deserved fame and special worth of the virtuous non-Christians whose names are recorded here. Moreover, the lists of names in Inferno 4 are fascinating in their multiculturalism. There are names of Hebrews, Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Muslims.
 Not only does Dante reverence what the men and women of Inferno 4 accomplished while alive, he believes them to be perfectly good, sinful only in their culturally-induced failure to believe. Dante’s extreme sensitivity to the cultural barriers to belief in Christ is articulated in the heaven of justice, where the pilgrim asks how it can be just to exclude from heaven a perfectly just man who happens to be born on the banks of the river Indus:
ché tu dicevi: “Un uom nasce a la riva de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva; e tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni sono, quanto ragione umana vede, sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni. Muore non battezzato e sanza fede: ov’è questa giustizia che ’l condanna? ov’è la colpa sua, se ei non crede?” (Par. 19.70-78)
For you would say: “A man is born along the shoreline of the Indus River; none is there to speak or teach or write of Christ. And he, as far as human reason sees, in all he seeks and all he does is good: there is no sin within his life or speech. And that man dies unbaptized, without faith. Where is this justice then that would condemn him? Where is his sin if he does not believe?”
 The souls whom Dante places in Limbo pose a challenge to justice similar to that of the “man born on the banks of the Indus” of Paradiso 19. How can it be just, the poet wonders in Paradiso 19, to condemn a person who lived with perfect virtue, just because the circumstances of his birth denied him the knowledge of Christianity? The language that describes the man born on the banks of the Indus — “there is no sin within his life or speech” — can be transposed to Virgilio, and the language that describes the virtuous non-Christians of Inferno 4 can be transposed to the man born on the banks of the Indus.
 Key here is Dante’s extreme sensitivity to the issue of cultural and textual transmission. In Paradiso 19 he carefully creates the context of a perfectly virtuous man who lives in a place where there is “no one to speak or teach or write of Christ” (Par. 19.71-2). The man on the banks of the Indus requires knowledge of Christ, orally or textually transmitted, in order to be saved, but such knowledge is not available, adding to the injustice of his damnation. In the same vein, in Purgatorio 22 Stazio explains that he was saved because of the knowledge of Christ that he received from the texts of the Gospels and (with terrible irony) from the texts of his revered Vergil.
 As the testimony of Stazio in Purgatorio 22 and the case of the man born on the banks of the Indus of Paradiso 19 testify, knowledge is necessary for salvation. Dante had poignantly analyzed the importance of one’s place of birth in the Convivio, where he considers the disadvantages that accrue to someone who has no access to a University or educated people: “L’altra è lo difetto del luogo dove la persona è nata e nutrita, che tal ora sarà da ogni studio non solamente privato, ma da gente studiosa lontano” (The other is the handicap that derives from the place where a person is born and bred, which at times will not only lack a university but be far removed from the company of educated persons [Conv. 1.1.4]).
 Dante’s keen awareness of the structural importance of equity of access conditions all his thinking on virtuous non-Christians and their exclusion from the Christian dispensation.
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 The following analysis of the presence of virtuous Muslims in Dante’s Limbo is taken from my essay, “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32” (see Coordinated Reading). As we have seen, Limbo as Dante conceives it houses principally virtuous pagans, nonbelievers of classical antiquity, who lived before Christianity but did “not sin”: “non peccaro” (Inf. 4.34). However — and here we encounter an immense aporia in Dante’s system — Dante also includes in his Limbo three virtuous Muslims, born many centuries after the start of Christianity. Indeed, even the question of how to parse the category of those who lived “before” Christ can get messy, as Boccaccio noticed in his Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, where he worries about the legitimacy of including in Limbo, along with adult non-Christians who lived entirely before the birth of Christ, some adult non-Christians who lived after the birth of Christ: “E di questi cotali pone l’autore alquanti, come è Ovidio, Lucano, Seneca, Tolomeo, Avicenna, Galieno e Averoìs” (Among them are Ovid, Lucan, Seneca, Ptolemy, Avicenna, Galen, and Averroes). (See Boccaccio, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante, ed. Giorgio Padoan [Verona: Mondadori, 1965], Inferno 4, Esposizione allegorica, §49. The translation is that of Michael Papio, Boccaccio’s Expositions on Dante’s “Comedy” [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009], p. 248.)
 The non-Christians in Dante’s Limbo who lived in the Christian era prompt Boccaccio to formulate the distinction between ignorantia facti and ignorantia iuris. The first kind of ignorance, ignorance of a fact, is excusable: there can be no guilt if knowledge is impossible to obtain. If the pope makes a secret law, asks Boccaccio, and someone violates it, would we say that that person could be excommunicated?: “direm noi che per questa ignoranza, che è ‘ignorantia facti,’ questo cotale sia escomunicato? Certo no, che ciò sarebbe manifestamente fuor d’ogni ragione, per ciò che gli uomini non sanno indovinare” (would we say, by ignorantia facti, that this person should be excommunicated? Of course not, for it would clearly be out of the question, since men are not mind readers) (Esposizioni, Inf. 4, all., §20–21; Papio trans., p. 243). In the case of ignorantia facti, therefore, the mitigation of the punishment of Hell is warranted for those who otherwise lived virtuously: “e perciò, se per altro ben vissero, non aver altra pena meritata che quella che semplicemente per lo peccato originale è data a coloro” (Hence, if they otherwise lived virtuously, they deserved no punishment other than simply what was meted out for original sin) (Esposizioni, Inf. 4, all., §46; Papio trans., p. 248).
 But, continues Boccaccio, the same cannot be said of ignorantia iuris. Once the law has been disseminated, and “the teaching of the Gospels has been preached everywhere,” ignorance is not a legitimate excuse:
E però se, dopo la dottrina evangelica predicata per tutto, è alcuno che quella seguita non abbia, quantunque per altro virtuosamente vivuto sia, sì come degno di maggior supplicio per la sua ignoranza, non dee a simil pena esser punito con gli innocenti, ma a molto più agra. (Esposizioni, Inf. 4., all., §48)
Therefore, once the teaching of the Gospels has been preached everywhere, anyone who did not learn it, no matter how virtuously he lived, must not be given the same punishment that the innocents receive. Rather, he deserves a greater penalty, and one that is far worse, on account of his ignorance. (Papio trans., p. 248)
 Boccaccio’s point is that inclusion in Dante’s Limbo under the banner of being a pagan who is guilty only of not knowing Christ becomes more difficult to justify the more deeply we progress into the Christian era, when access to the teaching of the Gospels was available. Returning to Boccaccio’s list of non-Christians in Limbo who lived in the Christian era — “E di questi cotali pone l’autore alquanti, come è Ovidio, Lucano, Seneca, Tolomeo, Avicenna, Galieno e Averoìs” — let us rearrange these souls by year of birth, from earliest to latest. First are those who were born before the Christian era but whose lives extended into the Christian era: Ovid lived 43 BCE to 17 CE, Seneca lived 4 BCE to 65 CE. The next are those who lived in the first two centuries of the Christian era: Lucan lived 39–65 CE, Ptolemy lived ca. 100–ca. 170 CE, Galen lived 129–ca. 200/ca. 216 CE.
 But the pressing issue with respect to those souls of Inferno 4 who live after the birth of Christ is constituted not by the threshold pagans like Ovid and Seneca, nor by those living in the early centuries of the Christian era, but by the contemporary non-Christians whom Dante nonetheless deems so compellingly virtuous as to put into his Limbo. They are three virtuous Muslims: a Muslim general, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, 1138–1193), and two Muslim philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā, 980–1037) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198).
 Here is a timeline of the ten souls in Dante’s Limbo who live after the birth of Christ. This group comprises the seven non-Christians on Boccaccio’s list plus Saladin, Juvenal, and Persius (the latter two are added to Limbo in Purgatorio 22):
 Boccaccio himself does not seem to be more worried about the Muslims whom Dante places in Limbo than he is about the pagans of late antiquity, Ptolemy and Galen, whom he intertwines with Avicenna and Averroes in the above list from the Esposizioni. And yet the Muslims necessarily pose a more serious problem, given the very terms of Boccaccio’s analysis, which is based on the degree of dissemination of the “dottrina evangelica.” The many centuries that separate Avicenna and Averroes from Ptolemy and Galen guarantee the greater spreading of Christian teaching, and Muslims, who consider Christ a holy prophet, cannot be called ignorant of Christianity. Because many Muslims lived in non-Christian lands, the question arose for me as to whether Dante viewed them as geographically rather than temporally distanced from Christianity. But the very premise of Dante’s category of geographical exclusion is lack of access to Christian teaching, which is not the case for Muslims. In this instance I decided it was best to follow Dante’s contemporary Boccaccio, who accepts without any sign of disturbance that Dante’s analysis places the virtuous Muslims of the Christian era alongside the virtuous pagans of classical antiquity.
 However, I do feel the need to register the stunning inconsistency in Dante’s thinking: Dante violates his own rubric “dinanzi al cristianesmo” in order to include virtuous Muslims in his Limbo. His desire to include them must be considered commensurate with his willingness to violate his own rules to do so. Why, indeed, does their knowledge of Christianity not make them more unpalatable to Boccaccio, who is so worried about Ovid having died 17 years after the birth of Christ? Why does Dante feel justified in including Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes in his Limbo? What makes them so virtuous? These are questions raised by this analysis that will, I hope, be studied by others in the future.
 For now, I offer some historical context. Dante never writes harshly about Averroes, in stark comparison to his contemporary, the philosopher Cecco d’Ascoli, whose philosophical poem Acerba is strewn with rabid denunciations of the heretic, “il falso Averoisse” (Acerba 1.2.120). Far from lashing out against Averroes in the Commedia, Dante places him in Limbo against all logic and expectation and refers to Averroes as more wise than himself (“più savio di te” in Stazio’s phrase) in Purgatorio 25.63. And I offer the testimony of Boccaccio, who values Averroes so highly as a transmitter of Aristotle that all other considerations seem to vanish. For Boccaccio, Averroes is a champion of cultural transmission, and hence a champion of equity in access to knowledge. Aristotle may be the “maestro di color che sanno” (master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), but, as Boccaccio notes, Aristotle is only known to the West because of the towering achievement of his commentator, “Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo” (Averroes, who made the great Commentary [Inf. 4.144]).
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 Because we have recently seen attitudes toward Limbo shift, we have been granted insight into Limbo’s historical function within the Catholic imaginary. The traditional idea of Limbo as a place to mitigate the pain of innocent babies who died before baptism has become increasingly less acceptable in today’s world. We live in a world in which baptism occurs later in an infant’s life than it did traditionally. For instance, my father was born in Vicenza in 1910, and his baptismal clothes are suitable for an infant whose age is measured in weeks, not in months, as per the mothers seeking information on this site. Changes in the attitudes of believers have placed greater pressure on the Church to explain how innocent infants can be sent to Hell for eternity.
 As a result the Catholic Church has recently moved to significantly reform the idea of Limbo. In the document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”, the International Theological Commission published its finding, in January 2007, that (according to the opening description): “without minimizing the importance of Baptism in any way, there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament”. In the document’s conclusion: “What has been revealed to us is that the ordinary way of salvation is by the sacrament of baptism. None of the above considerations should be taken as qualifying the necessity of baptism or justifying delay in administering the sacrament. Rather, as we want to reaffirm in conclusion, they provide strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them into the faith and life of the church” (§103). For the full document, see here and for the change in the Church, see this page.
 In the context of the Commission’s finding that there are ”strong grounds for hope that God will save infants when we have not been able to do for them what we would have wished to do, namely, to baptize them”, Dante’s Limbo may not seem so radical. But in fact Dante’s Limbo remains as radical as ever, for Dante had little interest in the sympathy-inducing infants who have always captured the attention of those concerned about the justice of Limbo. Dante’s attention is captured not by the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but by a completely different group.
 Dante’s wholly original project is to imagine a Limbo that mitigates the suffering not of the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but of non-Christian adults. This passionate interest in those who belong to cultural dispensations different from his own is what makes Dante’s conception of Limbo stand out in his own time — and still today.
Giorgio Padoan (1969) and Chiara Franceschini (2017) on Limbo
(Excerpt from: “Dante’s Limbo and Equity of Access: Non-Christians, Children, and Criteria of Inclusion and Exclusion, from Inferno 4 to Paradiso 32”)
 In 1969, Giorgio Padoan published “Il Limbo dantesco,” a groundbreaking essay that affirms and documents the radical tenor of Dante’s Limbo. Padoan points to Dante’s inclusion of adults in his Limbo, the virtuous pagans of antiquity and even some contemporary Muslims, as a massive deviation from the contemporary theology of Limbo. He points also to the failure of Dante scholarship to evaluate the significance of Dante’s deviation, although Dante’s deviation amounts to an unparalleled intervention into the history of this particular theological idea. Padoan is explicit about the remarkable anomaly of including adults in Limbo, claiming, correctly, that Dante “si oppone drasticamente a tutta la tradizione teologica del suo tempo (ed anche successiva) dichiarando che nel Limbo si trovano non solo bimbi morti in tenerissima età ma anche adulti” (Dante drastically opposes the entire theological tradition of his time, and the successive tradition as well, when he declares that Limbo holds not only babies who died as infants but also adults).[i] Very important here, and prophetic with respect to recent changes in church doctrine on Limbo, is Padoan’s note that only in the twentieth century were adults added to Limbo, referring explicitly to those who are intellectually or culturally disabled: “Solo agli inizi del nostro secolo la teologia cattolica ha ammesso che nel Limbo accanto ai bimbi possano essere anche degli adulti: ma in tal caso si tratterebbe di persone intellettualmente ritardate, o dell’età preistorica o di tribù primitive, e simili” (Only at the beginning of our century did Catholic theology admit that next to the infants there could also be adults: but in this case they were people who were intellectually retarded, or from prehistoric times or primitive tribes, or the like).[ii]
 With respect to the state of Dante scholarship on Limbo, Padoan notes that, instead of historicizing and thereby measuring Dante’s deviations from the theology of Limbo, “modern commentaries” (by which he means commentaries written before the time of his writing, in the late 1960s) minimize the differences between the poet and the theological tradition:
I commenti moderni hanno sottolineato, giustamente, soprattutto la viva ammirazione che Dante qui esterna con ogni evidenza per il mondo antico, anzi per le virtù intellettuali, civili e morali dell’uomo; ma, tranne qualche rapido cenno, peraltro non posto risolutamente al centro del discorso e quindi non sviluppato conseguentemente, non hanno affrontato il problema sul versante strettamente teologico; e quelli che più, per i loro interessi ideologici, avrebbero dovuto sentirsi impegnati a misurare precisamente il divario che distacca qui l’Alighieri dalle concezioni teologiche correnti nel suo tempo si sono invece sentiti in dovere, cedendo forse a sollecitazioni agiografiche, di minimizzare le diversità tentando di ricondurre il poeta entro i binari bonaventuriani e tomisti: come se tacere o minimizzare o addirittura falsare i termini di un problema, qual che esso sia, serva a qualcosa. [iii]
[Modern commentaries have underlined, correctly, the strong admiration for antiquity that Dante here makes manifest, especially for its intellectual, civic, and moral virtues. However, but for an occasional remark, not central or developed, these critics did not confront the issue from a strictly theological perspective; and those critics who could best have engaged in measuring with precision the distance that here separates Dante from contemporary theological belief instead felt obligated, perhaps yielding to the solicitations of hagiography, to minimize those differences. They tried to situate Dante within Bonaventurian and Thomistic paradigms, as though it could be useful to silence, minimize, or indeed to falsify the terms of the debate.]
 Padoan’s 1969 essay does the work of measuring the distance that separates Dante from theological orthodoxy with respect to Limbo. His rigorous and creative scholarship offered me, as a graduate student in the 1970s, my first insight into the immense gains of historicizing in the field of Dante studies: in this case, the gains of historicizing the idea of Limbo. By historicizing Limbo, Padoan opens our eyes to the radical nature of Dante’s thought; he was the first critic to show me that Dante is capable of — even sometimes inclined to — radical thought. Padoan does not exaggerate when he writes, in the conclusion of “Il Limbo dantesco,” that Dante’s treatment of Limbo constitutes a conscious violation of theological thought: “è una violazione consapevole e risoluta di quanto al proposito aveva elaborato l’investigazione teologica” (it is a conscious and resolute violation of what had been proposed by theological investigation).[iv]
 However, scholarly commentaries that accumulate over many centuries are slow to progress, and Padoan’s masterful historical contextualization of Dante’s Limbo has still to be fully integrated into the reception of Inferno 4. Most unfortunately, the recent Storia del limbo of 2017 by Chiara Franceschini does not register the existence of Padoan’s essay.[v] A comprehensive study of this sort, more than two-thirds of it devoted to the post-medieval period, cannot of course be expected to master every individual bibliography. But Dante’s Limbo is, literally, an exceptional case, and therefore a better understanding of the historiography with respect to Dante is essential. The author’s treatment of the ancient commentators is more useful and balanced than her treatment of contemporary historiography, although with respect to the ancients too we would profit from a greater ability to contextualize a given commentator: for instance, Boccaccio is consistently more squeamish about any sign of heterodoxy than, say, Benvenuto da Imola. In fact, Boccaccio’s sensitivity to church doctrine leads him to be particularly acute on Inferno 4 and therefore to figure prominently in this essay.[vi] Franceschini’s treatment of modern scholarship on Dante’s Limbo is scattershot. She both dignifies hypotheses that have not achieved any critical traction—for instance, Montanelli’s hypothesis, contradicted by the presence of Ripheus in paradise, that Dante moves away from the radical nature of his Limbo over the course of the three cantiche—and ignores fundamental contributions like Padoan’s. And, at the end of her analysis, Franceschini arrives at perplexity: a perplexity based on an unwillingness to countenance Dante’s exceptionalism.
 Storia del limbo offers a comprehensive account of the transmission over the centuries, through art and text, of the ideas that cohere into the scholastic and theological Limbo of the Middle Ages. Perhaps because of a methodology founded on demonstrating iron-clad transmission, Franceschini finds it difficult to accept that Dante invented the idea of putting adult virtuous pagans in Limbo. Her chapter 3, “Dante e il limbo dei pagani,” thus devotes itself to searching for the missing precursor. While she critiques Dante scholars for referring to “una supposta ‘norma,’ una cosiddetta ‘dottrina tradizionale’” (a supposed “norm,” a so-called “traditional doctrine”), Franceschini herself confirms the existence of just such a doctrine and such a norm—“problematic” though it may be—and is utterly stymied by Dante’s anomalous deviation from it.[vii] Problematic and murky as the normative and traditional doctrine may be, it is in fact very clear in not admitting adults to Limbo.
 Franceschini’s account of Inferno 4, “Dante e il limbo dei pagani,” although titled in such a way as to indicate precise awareness of the newness of Dante’s conception, nonetheless focuses on an unsatisfactory search for a theological precursor, which she attempts to locate in Augustine’s Contra Iulianum.[viii] Padoan had discussed the same text, pointing out that Dante takes as his the position that Augustine discredits.Iulianum.[ix] Emblematic of Franceschini’s resistance to the reality of Dante’s exceptionalism is the conclusion that follows:
Ma è difficile stabilire fino a che punto il limbo descritto nel canto IV, e in particolare l’associazione tra un nutrito gruppo di pagani virtuosi e il limbo, sia sostanzialmente un’invenzione letteraria di Dante o se sia basato su qualche precedente testuale che può essere individuato con certezza (e che sarebbe importante per noi, in quanto attesterebbe una circolazione più ampia dell’idea del limbo dei pagani). (Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87)[x]
[But it is difficult to establish up to what point the Limbo described in canto 4, and in particular the association of a sizable group of virtuous pagans with Limbo, is substantially a literary invention of Dante’s or whether it is based on a textual precedent that we can identify with certainty (and which would be important for us, in as much as it would testify to a more ample circulation of the idea of the Limbo of pagans).]
 Franceschini’s forlorn clinging to the hope of a textual precedent that has not yet been identified is a feature of Dantean historiography over the centuries: I think, for instance, of the scholars who have expressed the hope that we will find incontrovertible archival “proof” of Brunetto Latini’s homosexuality. Always misplaced as a way of dealing with Dante (who is willing to transform his precursors even when he does have them), in the case of Limbo the hope for a precedent is further belied by Franceschini’s own investigative zeal and precision. Failing to turn up any precedent to Dante’s “invenzione letteraria,” Franceschini’s concluding statement testifies to an unwillingness to credit the role of outsized imagination in the history of ideas.
[i] Giorgio Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” orig. 1969, repr. in Il pio Enea, l’empio Ulisse (Ravenna: Longo, 1977), pp. 101-24, citation p. 105. Translations mine.
[ii] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” p. 105, note 9.
[iii] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” pp. 103–4.
[iv] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” p. 124.
[v] Chiara Franceschini, Storia del limbo (Milano: Feltrinelli, 2017), pp. 76-94.
[vi] In “Contemporaries Who Found Heterodoxy in Dante: Cecco d’Ascoli, Boccaccio, and Benvenuto da Imola on Fortuna and Inferno 7.89,” I analyze the accusation of determinism that Cecco d’Ascoli lodges against Dante vis-à-vis Fortuna, comparing Benvenuto’s robust defense of Dante to Boccaccio’s timid response, in which he deferentially leaves the matter to be decided by the Church. The fascinating divergence between Boccaccio as author of audacious fictions that parody Church doctrines and Boccaccio as commentator of the Commedia merits critical study.
[vii] “È abbastanza curioso come, di fronte del compito di interpretare le parti della Commedia dedicate al limbo, molti dei lettori, sia antichi sia moderni, abbiano fatto riferimento a una supposta ‘norma,’ una cosiddetta ‘dottrina tradizionale’ che in realtà, come abbiamo visto, era di per sé molto problematica” (Franceschini, Storia del limbo, 78).
[viii] Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87.
[ix] Padoan, “Il Limbo dantesco,” pp. 106-7.
[x] Franceschini, Storia del limbo, p. 87.