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2. Reading Time, Text and the World1

© Matthew Treherne, CC BY 4.0

Matthew Treherne

In carrying out what now feels like the very firmly established critical habit of reading Dante ‘vertically’, but which was, at the time this reading was first presented in lecture form, a particularly fresh, innovative and intellectually risky enterprise, it is striking how the rationale for vertical reading modulates from canto to canto in the Commedia, rather like a lengthy progression of chords played on the guitar – so that as readings delve vertically into the poem, so too the practice gains forward momentum across the Commedia as a whole. The sharpest spurs to read vertically come, perhaps, in those cantos where textual echoes across the cantiche are so insistent that one suspects that many readers would seek out resonances and draw comparative readings even without any numerical structure or correspondence for encouragement: we might think, for instance, of the opening lines of cantos vii of Inferno and of Paradiso, both of which open with startling utterances of very different types. The recollection of Plutus’s rude interruption, ‘Papé Satan, papé Satàn aleppe!’ (Inf., vii. 1), in Justinian’s multilingual acclamation, ‘Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth / superillustrans claritate tua / felices ignes horum malacòth!’ (Par., vii. 1-3), for instance, is so clear that we are invited to dance across the text, interpreting such echoes. This is, of course, an unusually marked example; but we might usefully see it as setting an interpretive habit to be applied even in those cantos where the cues to read vertically across cantiche are more subtle.

In the case of the Twos, the practice of ‘vertical reading’ is signalled rather differently. The cantos are not marked by multiple textual echoes in the way that other cantos are; the practice of reading vertically is not, then, insisted upon. Rather, the cantos offer a rich sense of why reading vertically might be important. Across the three cantos, concerns emerge about how we read, listen, think and learn in time, ‘per tempo’ (Par., ii. 11). And, fittingly, these concerns are an expression of a need for a certain kind of verticality – a need to set the reader’s linear (‘horizontal’, we might say) progression across the text alongside other ways of reading. The cantos help articulate a version of the very idea of vertical reading.

It is not my intention to argue that this rationale for vertical reading implies that vertical reading should supersede other forms of reading. The cantos, after all, also insist upon the forward progression of the text. Novelty and surprise are all features of these cantos. Each of them, indeed, marks a moment of transition. Inferno ii is infused with the pilgrim’s fears and doubts concerning the journey he is about to undertake, and includes an explanation of the rationale for the entire journey in the form of Virgil’s account of being called to guide the pilgrim following Beatrice’s intervention. Purgatorio ii describes the opening dawn and the arrival of a boat full of souls (including the pilgrim’s friend, Casella, who will sing a canzone written by Dante); this requires rapid adjustment on the part of the reader and of the pilgrim himself to the new, surprising context of Purgatory. And Paradiso ii marks the transition into the Heaven of the Moon with a warning to many of Dante’s readers to turn back in order to avoid being lost; the mystery of the pilgrim’s (possibly) physical ascent to this Heaven leads to a sudden shift of tone, content and style in Beatrice’s complex account of the spots on the moon; Beatrice’s own dense, challenging, highly intellectual speech confounds expectations set by the earlier, highly stilnovistic presentation of her in Inferno ii. As well as describing moments of transition, the cantos are marked by features which are puzzling to the first-time reader. Take, for instance, Virgil’s description of himself as tra color che son sospesi’ [among those who are suspended] (Inf., ii. 52) at the time when Beatrice appeared to him. This aside makes little sense at this point in the text, given that we do not yet know how Dante has re-imagined the notion of Limbo to include the virtuous pagans. While the question of Virgil’s status in the afterlife will be resolved, at least partly, in Inferno iv, the confusion is itself part of the point here, and the bewildering nature of this moment in the text depends upon it being read as a point in a linear progression. Similarly, the pilgrim’s and Virgil’s arrival on Mount Purgatory provokes surprise and questions concerning the nature of Purgatory itself. We are only beginning to recognise the position of Purgatory in the southern hemisphere, for instance, from the brief allusions to the constellations visible to the pilgrim. Furthermore, the fact that the souls are singing a psalm, as they arrive at the shore of Mount Purgatory on the boat, would have startled late medieval readers, used to the idea that while the souls of Purgatory require prayers on the part of the living on earth, they themselves do not pray.2 And, of course, the difficulty of Paradiso ii is compounded by the shock of Dante’s opening warning to his readers that those many readers, ‘in piccioletta barca’ [in little barks] (Par., ii. 1), should turn around and not follow further into the third cantica. Disorientation and defamiliarisation are, in short, hallmarks of these moments in the Commedia. All of this, then, should remind us as we proceed that the ‘horizontal’ movement through the text should not be discarded in any attempts to read vertically: rather, the two should be seen as engaging in productive dialogue.

Nowhere is this dialogue between ‘horizontal’ and ‘vertical’ clearer than in the way in which the passage of time is announced as a theme in the openings of Inferno and Purgatorio ii, with their respective descriptions of dusk and dawn. This is an opportune prompt to consider questions of reading vertically, and of how such a reading might relate to more linear dynamics in the text, because in one respect the passage of time, and Dante’s emphasis on it here, emphasises forward motion. Dante’s own account of time in the Convivio, as a ‘numero di movimento, secondo prima e poi’ [succession of movement involving before and after] (Conv., IV. ii), defines time as an ordering of events. However, the two opening descriptions of the time of day in these two cantos, and the strong relationship between them, suggest that the experience of time, and the shaping and consideration of time, are much richer than that. Let us consider the two passages together:

Lo giorno se n’andava, e l’aere bruno
toglieva li animai che sono in terra
da le fatiche loro; e io sol uno

m’apparecchiava a sostener la guerra
sì del cammino e sì de la pietate,
che ritrarrà la mente che non erra. (Inf., ii. 1-6)

[The day was departing, and the darkened air was releasing all living creatures on the earth from their toils; and I alone prepared myself to undergo the war both of the journey and of pity, which memory, unerring, will depict.]

Già era ’l sole a l’orizzonte giunto
lo cui meridian cerchio coverchia
Ierusalèm col suo più alto punto,

e la notte, che opposita a lui cerchia,
uscia di Gange fuor con le Bilance,
che le caggio di man quando soverchia,

sì che le bianche e le vermiglie guance,
là dov’i’era, de la bella Aurora
per troppa etate divenivan rance. (Purg., ii. 1-9)

[Already the sun had reached that horizon whose meridian circle covers Jerusalem with its highest point, and Night, circling opposite him, was coming forth from Ganges with the Scales, which fall from her hands when she predominates, so that the white and rose cheeks of lovely Aurora, there were I was, were becoming orange with advancing age.]

The first thing we might notice is that in each case the forward motion of time is presented – a new night beginning, an old day departing; a new day beginning, an old night departing – but also, crucially, other factors test and reframe that forward motion, casting time in a different light. In Inferno ii, the end of the day is presented in the context of a certain regular, repeated experience of time – usually at this time of day, people are starting to rest, but I, Dante the pilgrim, am having to break that norm in order to prepare for this journey. The familiarity of the daily regularity, as a new moment of dusk settles into the expected patterns of rest and sleep, sets the onward journey into sharp relief. It is this contrast between the experience of time as repeated cycle and the newness of the pilgrim’s experience that gives the passage such poignancy. At this stage of the poem, this relationship between different experiences of time is expressed as tension. But in Purgatorio ii, that tension becomes more meaningful, for here the description of the opening of the day is framed, as so many of the mentions of the time of day will be in the second cantica, by complex descriptions of the relative position of the sun at Jerusalem. The position of Purgatory at the antipodes of Jerusalem is one of the most surprising features of the opening of the second cantica, and an idea which emerges largely through the description of the time (although it is also signalled by the stars visible to the pilgrim – ‘I’ mi volsi a man destra e puosi mente / a l’altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle / non viste mai fuor ch’a la prima gente’ [I turned to the right and considered the other pole, and I saw four stars never seen except by the first people] (Purg., i. 22-23)). In order to signal the start of a new day on Mount Purgatory, Dante also signals the end of a day in Jerusalem. So, as in the opening of Inferno ii, the progressive passage of time with the dawn of a new day (and this is the first new day we have witnessed since Dante emerged from the darkness of Hell) is set against a quite different sense of time, with a single moment in time described in such a way that it references both the beginning and the end of a day. It is often said that Purgatory is the realm of the afterlife most properly ‘in time’; but this opening description of the passage of time suggests that the perspective of Jerusalem is crucial to how time will be seen and understood. This will become more explicit still at the very end of the ascent of Mount Purgatory, when Dante describes the end of a day in these terms:

Sì come quando i primi raggi vibra
là dove il suo Fattor lo sangue sparse,
cadendo Ibero sotto l’alta Lira

e l’onde in Gange da nona riarse:
sì stava il sole, onde ’l giorno sen giva,
come l’angel di Dio lieto ci apparse.
(Purg., xxvii. 1-6)

[As when it strikes its first vibrating rays where once its own Creator shed His blood (the river Ebro falling under Libra’s height, while Ganges’ waves are scorched by noon-time heat), at that degree the sun now stood. So day was leaving when, in joy, God’s angel showed.]

In other words: it is nightfall. In Jerusalem, it is dawn; at the summit of Mount Purgatory (at the antipodes of Jerusalem), it is dusk. Dante ties this linear moment in time to the crucifixion: he describes the time of day in relation to that place where the Creator’s blood was spilled. But here, Dante goes still further. At the very moment of telling us the time of day, he is also describing the time of day in three other places: at Jerusalem, where it is daybreak; at the river Ebro, where it is the middle of the night (‘sotto l’alta Libra’); and at the Ganges, where it is mid-day (‘da nona riarse’). This choice of reference points is surely not casual, and deepens the association of the description with Christ: for the Ganges and the Ebro are respectively at 90° East and 90° West of the axis running from Mount Purgatory to Jerusalem. These geographical reference points thus establish a cruciform shape. But it is not only a spatial image: it is also the clearest indication, thus far in the Commedia, of Christ as possessing a particular temporality, as mediating between time and eternity, as kairotic. The figure of the Cross not only embraces all of earthly space – the Ebro and the Ganges representing for Dante the Westerly and Easterly limits of the earth – but also all of human time. At this moment in Purgatorio, Dante’s poetry presents the linear passage of a day, from midnight to dawn to noon to dusk, as holding together in one instant the image of the Cross. Christ, as Gregory the Great puts it in the Moralia in Job, encloses in himself all of the succession of time (‘intra seipsum temporum discursus claudit’).3 Gregory continues by explaining that the Word, in taking human form, entered into human time and, in this act of assuming the conditions of temporality, spread the light of eternity onto human beings:

Ortus uero humanitatis eius, quia et coepit, et desiit, et ante et post habere a tempore accepit. Sed quia, dum ipse umbras nostrae temporalitatis suscepit, lumen nobis suae aeternitatis infudit, recte per hunc ortum quem creator sibi in tempore condidit locum suum sine tempore aurora cognouit.

[But since the birth of his humanity has a beginning and an end, it also holds a beginning and an end in time. And in taking on the shadows of our temporal condition, he spreads on us the light of his eternity; it is therefore rightly said that after this birth in which the creator gave himself in time, the dawn which was outside of time takes place.]4

This passage has many resonances with the opening of Purgatorio xxvii, which describes the creator of light’s crucifixion in terms of a dawn breaking at the moment of darkness. Dante is describing a moment in time and space transfigured into all time and all of the earth, clearly anticipating the understanding of God which will emerge in the Paradiso as ‘là ’ve s’appunta ogne ubi e ogne quando’ [there where every ‘when’ and ‘where’ attains its point] (Par., xxix. 12).

The descriptions of the passage of time in Purgatory in relation to the time in Jerusalem, then, are highly suggestive of the perspective of Christ, which is, of course, going to be central to Dante’s idea of Purgatory. We are, for instance, about to encounter Manfredi in Purgatorio iii, who will introduce himself through his wounds (109-11); furthermore, the suffering of the souls of Purgatory will be explicitly linked to the suffering of Christ in Purgatorio xxiii, when Forese Donati will explain that the suffering – really no suffering at all – of the souls is motivated by the same desire as that which filled Christ on the cross (Purg., xxiii. 70-75). But here in Purgatorio ii, we are given a strong sense of reading time through Christ; it is a way of reading time which deepens and develops the idea we had at the opening of Inferno ii, where a linear movement through time seemed to exist in tension with a sense of time as a repeated cycle, where a moment can be both new and contain other moments within itself. We might see a further suggestion of this idea in the account of Beatrice descending into Hell in Inferno ii, entering Limbo as Christ did when he reached back into time to save the Hebrew patriarchs.

It is worth emphasising that this reading of time in the light of Christ is in turn a way of reading text itself. This is indicated perhaps most strongly in the account in Purgatorio ii of the arrival of the boat filled with souls on the shore of Mount Purgatory:

Da poppa stava il celestial nocchiero,
tal che parea beato per descripto;
e più di cento spiriti entro sediero.

‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’:
cantavan tutti insieme ad una voce
con quanto di quel salmo è poscia scripto.

Poi fece il segno lor di santa croce,
ond’ei si gittar tutti in su la piaggia:
ed el sen gì, come venne, veloce.
(Purg., ii. 43-51)

[At the stern stood the angelic pilot, who seemed to have blessedness inscribed on him; and more than a hundred spirits were sitting within. ‘In exitu Israel de Aegypto’, they were singing all together with one voice, with as much of that psalm as is written thereafter. Then he made the sign to them of the holy cross; at which they all threw themselves on the beach; and he went away as quickly as he had come.]

This is a passage which is in many ways paradigmatic of the Commedia as a whole, with the departure from sin to redemption figured in the crossing of the Red Sea in Psalm 113. The Epistle to Can Grande expresses the multi-layered reading of the Psalm in terms which connect it directly to the interpretation of the Commedia itself:

Ad evidentiam itaque dicendorum sciendum est quod istius operis non est simplex sensus, ymo dici potest polysemos, hoc est plurium sensuum; nam primus sensus est qui habetur per litteram, alius est qui habetur per significata per litteram. Et primus dicitur litteralis, secundus vero allegoricus sive moralis sive anagogicus. Qui modus tractandi, ut melius pateat, potest considerari in hiis versibus: ‘In exitu Israel de Egipto, domus Iacob de populo barbaro, facta est Iudea sanctificatio eius, Israel potestas eius’. Nam si ad litteram solam inspiciamus, significatur nobis exitus filiorum Israel de Egipto, tempore Moysis; si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum; si ad moralem sensum, significatur nobis conversio anime de luctu et miseria peccati ad statum gratie; si ad anagogicum, significatur exitus anime sancte ab huius corruptionis servitute ad eterne glorie libertatem. (Epistle XIII)

[One must know that the sense of this work is not simple, rather it can be called polysemous, having several senses; for the first sense is what is conveyed by the letter, another is what is conveyed by the things signified by the letter. And the first is called literal, the second either allegorical or moral or anagogical. This mode of treatment can be made clear by considering it in these verses: ‘When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from a barbarous people.’ For if we look to the letter alone, the Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt in the time of Moses is signified to us; if to the allegory, our redemption wrought by Christ is signified to us; if to the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from the grief and wretchedness of sin to the state of grace is signified to us; if to the anagogical, the passage of the holy soul from the servitude of this corruption to the freedom of eternal glory.]

Regardless of the authorship of the Epistle, the connection between the reading of the Psalm, the reading of life in the light of the Psalm and the reading of Dante’s text is borne out in Purgatorio ii itself.5 For the typological key to the Psalm, in the text, might be the sign of the cross made by the angel at the conclusion of the Psalm, drawing together the readings of the Psalm as about a particular moment in the history of the Hebrews, as about the liberation of the individual souls themselves and as about the liberation of humanity brought about by Christ. The Psalm itself – which we are expected to imagine all the way through, as Dante makes clear – offers a model for reading, then, whereby a historical moment, read in the light of the sign of the Cross, is not simply an instant which passes from the present into the past, but itself is given presence. Here, indeed, that presence is enacted in the performance of the psalm, with the static, written text (‘quanto di quel salmo è poscia scripto’) voiced in time through song and gesture. Coming at a point in the text where time is foregrounded and where the nature of time in relation to Christ is also highlighted through the opening lines of the canto, the presence of the Psalm suggests a model of reading which disrupts any straightforward linearity of time.

The moment of the boat’s arrival on the shore of Mount Purgatory, moreover, forms a bridge in our vertical reading to Paradiso ii and its address to the reader.

O voi che siete in piccioletta barca,
desiderosi d’ascoltar, seguiti
dietro al mio legno che cantando varca,

tornate a riveder li vostri liti:
non vi mettete in pelago, ché forse,
perdendo me, rimarreste smarriti.

Voialtri pochi che drizzaste il collo
per tempo al pan de li angeli, del quale
vivesi qui ma non sen vien satollo,

metter potete ben per l’alto sale
vostro navigio, servando mio solco
dinanzi a l’acqua che ritorna equale. (Par., ii. 1-15)

[O you who in little barks, desirous of listening, have followed after my ship that sails onward singing: turn back to see your shores again, do not put out on the deep sea, for perhaps, losing me, you would be lost... You other few, who stretched out your necks early on for the bread of the angels, which one lives on here though never sated by it: you can well set your course over the salt deep, staying within my wake before the water returns level again.]

While many of Dante’s readers will be lost, others will be able to follow. It might be tempting to think of the distinction drawn here as that between educated and non-educated audiences, or between readers of varying intellectual powers; and, indeed, the intellectual challenge of the cantica which follows supports such a reading. However, a comparative, vertical reading across the Twos of each cantica of the Commedia draws out a somewhat different emphasis. The respective openings of Inferno ii and Purgatorio ii suggest a deepening understanding of the nature of time in Christ. At stake, here as well, is the ability of those readers to reach ‘per tempo’ (in time, by time, through time) the Eucharistic bread of angels.

The vertical reading across cantiche can offer still further insights into the distinction being made between types of readers because Purgatorio ii has already staged different modes of engaging with text. As we have seen, the arrival of the souls in Purgatory on their boat offers a mode of engaging with the Psalm, bringing it into a present moment by voicing it and interpreting it Christologically through the gesture of the angel. As is widely recognised, this performance of the Psalm contrasts with the other performed text in the canto, Casella’s singing of Dante’s ‘Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona’. This, the first example of the pilgrim meeting a saved friend in the afterlife, is a moment filled with great tenderness; and Dante uses the encounter to establish firmly that the souls in Purgatory are still able to remember their past lives very clearly, the pilgrim asking:

‘Se nuova legge non ti toglie
memoria o uso a l’amoroso canto
che mi solea quetar tutte mie doglie,

di ciò ti piaccia consolare alquanto
l’anima mia, che, con la sua persona
venendo qui, è affannata tanto!’ (Purg., ii. 106-11)

[If a new law has not taken from you the memory or habit of the amorous singing that used to quiet all my desires, let it please you to console my soul a little in that way, for, coming here with its body, it is so wearied!]

Casella’s performance offers an immediate, affirmative answer to the question of whether the souls’ past lives – in the form of memory or habit – can be recalled in the present of Purgatory, thus highlighting once again the ways in which past and present moments are brought into relationship with each other. The recollection of the song itself has a powerful effect on those who hear it. Casella sings:

sì dolcemente,
che la dolcezza ancor dentro mi suona.

Lo mio maestro e io e quella gente
ch’eran con lui parevan sì contenti,
come a nessun toccasse altro la mente.
(Purg., ii. 113-17)

[so sweetly that the sweetness still sounds within me. My master and I and those people that were with him seemed as contented as if nothing else touched anyone’s mind.]

The absorption of the listeners in the music is interrupted, however, by Cato:

Noi eravam tutti fissi e attenti
a le sue note; ed ecco il veglio onesto
gridando: ‘Che è ciò, spiriti lenti?

qual negligenza, quale stare è questo?
Correte al monte a spogliarvi lo scoglio
ch’esser non lascia a voi Dio manifesto’. (Purg., ii. 118-23)

[We were all fixed and attentive to his notes; and here was the venerable old man, crying: ‘What is this, laggard spirits? What negligence, what standing still is this? Run to the mountain to shed the slough that keeps God from being manifest to you’.]

We might read this passage in relation to the opening of Paradiso ii: there, those readers, in their little boat, described as wishing merely to listen, are warned that they will end up lost; the souls here in Purgatory also wish merely to listen, and need to be restored to their path. The parallel reading across Paradiso ii and Purgatorio ii suggests, then, that Casella’s song is in some respects a dangerous distraction, in need of interruption.6 Read in this way, what is wrong with Casella’s song? Part of the problem might be the way it sets memory in the present moment, as something which is entirely absorbing, so that ‘a nessun toccasse altro la mente’ [nothing else touched anyone’s mind] (l. 117); and as something which is an end-point for all desire, so that ‘mi solea quetar tutte mie voglie’ [it used to quiet all my desires] (l. 108). The relationship between the historical moment and the present is, in other words, not a dynamic one, and certainly not one which is conceived in relation to providential history, as the singing of Psalm 113 so clearly was. We should note too, that Casella’s singing of a canzone written by Dante himself highlights the question of the pilgrim’s relationship to his own history – in particular to his own intellectual and poetic past, a topic which has formed the basis for much of the scholarly debate on this episode.7 To overstate the case slightly, we might see this as a failed vertical reading, where a past text is brought into the present in order to remove the consciousness of the present moment.

Reading Casella’s song in relation to Paradiso ii, then, helps highlight the contrast being made between salvific engagement with text, such as that carried out by the ‘pochi che drizzaste il collo / per tempo al pan de li angeli’ [few, who stretched out your necks early on for the bread of angels] (Par., ii. 10-11), and other forms of reading. That said, we would be shortchanging Dante’s text if we saw Casella’s song as purely negative. After all, Casella’s musical response to the pilgrim’s request to sing, provided he still has the ability and the memory, tells us three crucial things. First, it shows that the souls of Purgatory can remember their past lives, and thus sets up the notion, essential to Dante’s highly original conception of Purgatory, that being in Purgatory involves reflection on one’s past life in order to bring about inner change. Second, it emphasises the ability to sing, and – alongside the singing of the Psalm earlier in the canto – it firmly establishes the idea that Purgatory will be a place of song, in contrast not only to Hell, but also to existing notions of Purgatory, as we have seen. Finally, the personal connection between Dante the pilgrim and his friend, as well as the tenderness of the communal experience, reflects an important characteristic of the second cantica as a whole. The critique of Casella’s song which is implied in the vertical comparison I have drawn with the opening of Paradiso ii must not, then, be oversimplified: the vertical reading draws out certain emphases, but in dialogue with the linear reading.

And yet the contrast between Casella’s song and the singing of the Psalm, read in light of the distinction established in Paradiso ii between types of reader, does develop the idea of ‘vertical’ understandings of time, of the various ways in which time might be experienced and framed. The different types of engagement with text in Purgatorio ii and Paradiso ii develop notions which are also present in Inferno ii, where the nature of speech in relation to Dante the pilgrim’s salvation is alluded to. Virgil reports that Beatrice had instructed him to find the pilgrim ‘con la tua parola ornata / e con ciò c’ha mestieri al suo campare’ [with your ornamented speech and whatever else is needed for his escape] (Inf., ii. 67-68). Eloquent speech, then, can help draw the pilgrim from his Dark Wood. But in itself, speech is not enough. Beatrice also suggests two characteristics for salvation: a deep desire and an active response to love. Virgil shows his deep desire to understand how Beatrice has been able to descend into Hell (she responds ‘da che tu vuo’ saver cotanto a dentro’ [since you wish to know so deeply] (Inf., ii. 85-87)); Beatrice’s own speech is grounded in a response to love (‘Amor mi mosse, che mi fa parlare’ [Love has moved me and makes me speak] (Inf., ii. 72)). Beatrice’s description of herself as moved by love prefigures the very last line of the Commedia, which describes the love which moves the sun and the other stars (‘l’amor che move il sole e le altre stelle’ (Par., xxxiii. 145)). Beatrice, herself, ‘fatta da Dio’ [made by God] (Inf., ii. 91), is a manifestation of this principle of love – more particularly, her speech is a manifestation of the principle: love moves her and makes her speak. Beatrice answers Virgil’s desire to fully understand her presence in Limbo by explaining its principle, and by taking him directly to the foundation of her being.

The question of how ornate speech might relate to salvation is thus contained already in Inferno ii, and will be drawn out in Purgatorio ii and Paradiso ii. It also points towards a further, related question about the processes and models of learning, which is developed throughout these three cantos. Virgil’s reported dialogue with Beatrice already hints at this, with Beatrice responding to Virgil’s deep desire to know. And, indeed, one of the central preoccupations of Inferno ii is the question of why the pilgrim himself needs to go on this journey. It is in this canto that he insists that he is neither Aeneas, nor St Paul (l. 32); in doing so, he not only offers precedents, setting his text in dialogue with those earlier journeys and establishing one Classical and one Christian model for his text; he also figures his own lack of qualifications for the journey as one of the essential conditions for his journey to take place.

Virgil, in Purgatorio ii, suggests that the pilgrim’s lack of obvious credentials is also the condition of all the souls in Purgatory. As Virgil and Dante are approached by those souls and asked for guidance towards the mountain, Virgil responds: ‘voi credete / forse che siamo esperti d’esto loco; / ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete’ [you believe perhaps that we know this place; but we are strangers here, as you are] (Purg., ii. 61-63). These lines offer an account of the way in which learning will take place in Purgatory: not from a position of authority, but rather from a condition in which limited knowledge and lack of expertise are the starting points. Virgil’s sense of himself as a ‘peregrin’ – the word suggests both the notion of a traveller in a strange place, and the notion of a pilgrim – captures an idea which runs across these three cantos: that disorientation is central to the spiritual and intellectual growth which the Commedia aims to describe and foster.

Dante creates this feeling of bewilderment in his reader as well. In Inferno ii, while we have been given some information about the basic itinerary of Dante’s journey (at Inf., i. 112-20), we are still coming to terms with a number of shocks: the fact that Virgil is Dante’s guide; that Beatrice descends into Hell to redeem Dante; that Virgil describes himself as among those who are ‘sospesi’ (l. 52). The reader’s condition in Purgatorio ii is also unsettled, with the situation of Purgatory at the antipodes of Jerusalem a surprise, the nature of Antepurgatory still unclear and the presence of liturgical performance entirely unexpected in the context of established views of Purgatory. And Paradiso ii foregrounds the conditions in which learning can take place through its complex discussion of the nature of the spots on the moon.

The distinction at the opening of Paradiso ii, between those readers who Dante suggests can follow him into the third cantica and those who cannot, is not a distinction relating to intellectual ability, but is rather associated with a particular habit of thought. Those readers who, in their time-bound, earthly lives, are able to reach for the bread of angels are the readers who will not be merely transfixed by the desire to hear the sound of Dante’s words, but will somehow look beyond them. The Eucharistic image of the bread of angels is not casual here. Indeed, the latter stages of Purgatory-proper had been marked by a concentration of Eucharistic references: Statius’s use of the resurrected Christ’s words when breaking the bread at Emmaus (‘O frati miei, Dio vi dea pace’ [O my brothers, God give you peace] (Purg., xxi. 13)); the allusion to the Wedding at Cana (‘Più pensava Maria onde/fosser le nozze orrevoli e intere / ch’a la sua bocca, ch’or per voi risponde’ [Mary thought more about how the wedding could be made honourable and complete than about her mouth, which now answers for you] (Purg., xxii. 142-44); and the inverted image of the Eucharistic pelican potentially implied by the reference to Mary of Jerusalem (‘Ecco / la gente che perdé Ierusalemme, / quando Maria nel figlio diè di becco’ [Behold the people who lost Jerusalem, when Mary put her beak into her son] (Purg., xxiii. 28-30)).8 This concentration of Eucharistic imagery comes in the cantos which describe the terraces of Purgatory where the souls are learning to correct avarice, prodigality and gluttony. These souls were excessively attached to that which, as Virgil puts it, ‘non fa l’uom felice; / non è felicità, non è la buona / essenza, d’ogne ben frutto e radice’ [does not make one happy; is not happiness, is not the good Essence, fruit and root of all goodness] (Purg., xvii. 133-35). The Eucharistic imagery in the upper Terraces of Purgatory, then, contrasts with such attachment. This contrast is perhaps best emblematized in Forese Donati’s account of the purgation of the souls on the Terrace of Gluttony: the souls’ suffering is better described as solace than as pain (‘Io dico pena, e dovria dir sollazzo’) because ‘quella voglia a li alberi ci mena / che menò Cristo lieto a dire ‘Elì’, / quando ne liberò con la sua vena’ [that desire leads us to the trees that led Christ to say ‘Elì’ gladly, when he freed us with the blood of his veins] (Purg., xxiii. 72-75). The desire for that which is the root of all that exists, ‘la buona / essenza, d’ogne ben frutto e radice’, is one that leads the souls to look beyond their immediate, material, possessive desires to the Eucharistic blood of Christ. We can see, then, an analogy between the very process of purgation – figured here as a process of learning to look beyond immediate goods to the divine creative principle on which those, and all, goods depend – and the habit of thought which those readers who are able to follow Dante into Paradiso have cultivated, reaching for the Eucharistic bread of angels rather than fixing on that which is immediate.

The idea that reading Paradiso requires a willingness to look beyond that which is material informs the whole of Paradiso ii. The pilgrim’s movement into the Heaven of the Moon is, in itself, a spur for that process:

Giunto mi vidi ove mirabil cosa
mi torse il viso a sè, e però quella
cui non potea mia cura essere ascosa,

volta ver’ me, sì lieta come bella:
‘Drizza la mente in Dio grata’, mi disse,
‘che n’ha congiunti con la prima stella’. (Par., ii. 25-30)

[I saw I had reached a place where marvellous things drew my sight, and therefore she from whom my care could not be hidden, turning toward me, joyous as she was beautiful: ‘Direct your mind to God in gratitude’, she told me, ‘who has conjoined us with the first star’.]

The pilgrim’s experience of the miraculous ascent to the Heaven of the Moon, then, is channelled by Beatrice into a reflection on the God who has made that ascent possible: the narrated event is an immediate spur to reflection on the divine principle underlying it. That notion is deepened even further as Dante raises the question of whether he ascended to the Heaven of the Moon in his body, associating the mystery of his physical body’s reception in the Heaven of the Moon with the mystery of the union of God and man in Christ:

S’io era corpo – e qui non si concepe
com’una dimensione altra patio,
ch’esser convien se corpo in corpo repe – 

accender ne dovria più il disio
di veder quella essenza in che si vede
come nostra natura e Dio s’unìo.

Lì si vedrà ciò che tenem per fede,
non dimostrato, ma fia per sé noto
a guisa del ver primo che l’uom crede.
(Par., ii. 37-42)

[If I was a body – and down here it cannot be conceived how one dimension could accept another, as must occur, if body coincide with body – it should kindle within us more desire to see that Essence where is seen how our nature and God became one. There we shall see that which we hold by faith, and not by demonstration, but it will be self-evident, like the first truth one believes.]

Here, Dante does not explain the mechanics of his journey into the Heaven of the Moon – he does not even tell us for certain that it happened at all; instead, he explains that our desire to understand that which is incomprehensible should increase our desire to see Christ. For an encounter with truth, not held through faith, not demonstrated intellectually, but known in itself, ‘per sé’, will be possible when a person is united with God in Christ. The mysterious, miraculous event which is described is not to be interpreted or understood in its own right, but directs us to the Incarnation. The distinction between types of readers at the opening of Paradiso ii is thus reinforced: that which is put before the reader, as an event, is not to be interpreted merely for its own sake, as those readers who are simply desirous of listening (Par., ii. 2) might do. Rather, it is to be seen as encouraging readers in their longing for the mystery of the Incarnation, as those who stretch out their necks early on for the bread of angels (Par., ii. 10-11) would do.

This rich and dynamic interplay between reason, faith and the longing for direct knowledge of God introduces one of the most difficult and, to many readers, frustrating passages in Dante’s Commedia: Beatrice’s extended discussion of why there are spots on the moon. This is the point at which we realise that Dante’s warning to his readers that they risk ending up lost is not an empty warning. There is not space here to consider the intricacies of the argument, and the passage has been discussed in rich detail elsewhere.9 However, in the context of this vertical reading, a number of important features emerge – indeed, we might see in them a paradigm for reading and learning, which develops the ideas we have seen emerge across each of the cantos under consideration here. The importance of the account is not to be found in the intrinsic importance of moonspots as opposed to any other phenomenon in the created world, but rather in the intellectual and spiritual action that the phenomenon demands and provokes. In the context of this discussion in Paradiso ii, that action begins, straightforwardly enough, with Beatrice dismissing the superstitious belief mentioned by the pilgrim, according to which the moonspots are caused by the presence of Cain on the moon, who has been banished there following his murder of Abel (ll. 49-51). However, rather than simply set out what is really the case, Beatrice asks him to present his own view: namely, that the moon is made of differentiated matter, dense and rare (‘ciò che n’appar qua sù diverso / credo che fanno i corpi rari e densi’ (ll. 59-60)). Beatrice then partially dismantles this purely material explanation by reference to a further physical phenomenon: the fact that, in an eclipse, light does not pass through the moon (‘fora manifesto / ne l’eclissi del sol, per trasparere / lo lume come in altro raro ingesto’ (ll. 79-81)). Then, a further possible physical explanation is discussed: that if there is dense matter underlying even the patches of rare matter on the moon (‘s’elli è che questo raro non trapassi’ (l. 85)), blocking the light, the pilgrim is probably imagining that the dark spots on the moon are those spots where the light reflected by the moon is hitting the dense matter further back (‘el si dimostra tetro / ivi lo raggio più che in altre parti / per esser lì refratto più a retro’ (ll. 91-93)).

So far, the potential explanations, and the arguments which Beatrice has deployed to unpick them, have all responded to physical phenomena. At this point, Beatrice offers what appears to be the most concrete empirical evidence to show the limitations of Dante’s thinking: a replicable experiment, described in some detail.

Tre specchi prenderai, e i due rimovi
da te d’un modo, e l’altro più rimosso
tr’ambo li primi li occhi tuoi ritrovi.

Rivolto ad essi, fa che dopo il dosso
ti stea un lume che i tre specchi accenda
e torni a te da tutti ripercosso.

Ben che nel quanto tanto non si stenda
la vista più lontana, lì vedrai
come convien ch’igualmente risplenda.
(Par., ii. 97-105)

[Take three mirrors, and place two of them at the same distance from you, and let your eyes find the third more distant and between the first two. Facing toward them, have a light from behind you shine on the three mirrors and return to you reflected from all three. Even though the more distant image is not as extended in size, you will see that it is equally bright there.]

The experiment, as Beatrice describes it, demonstrates that the light does not grow dimmer as it travels over space, and therefore disproves the explanation of the moonspots that depends on light being reflected from a greater distance. Instead, Beatrice explains, the entire order of the universe is intended to produce variety in being. God’s power and intelligence are one and indivisible, but the universe radiates those powers into all things (ll. 127-41).

Beatrice’s instruction to the pilgrim to try out this experiment makes use of empirical evidence in order to demonstrate the limitations of his physical explanation for the moonspots. In this respect, it is a very similar move to the one she makes in pointing the pilgrim to his experience of witnessing eclipses at lines 79-81. However, the experiment itself – as readers have pointed out – is intrinsically problematic.10 For in placing a mirror in front of oneself, two mirrors to the side, and a light behind, one ends up seeing not the reflected light, but oneself, blocking the light. For the experiment to work, then, one has to somehow be transparent to the light; one already needs to be, in other words, in the very condition which the pilgrim assumes as he enters the Heaven of the Moon, accepted just as light is accepted by water, ‘com’acqua recepe raggio di luce permanendo unita’ (ll. 35-36).

This idea is as easy to understand as fixing up a few mirrors and a lamp in a dark room; it is as hard to understand as the Incarnation itself. And it is no accident, surely, that this mirror – pushing us to the very limit of where sensory experience and experimentation can take us – situates us, once again, in a cross. Indeed, in order to understand the limits of what we can grasp empirically, it is necessary to be located within the cross.

The moonspots experiment encapsulates, in this way, what has emerged across these three cantos. It shows how the mystery of the still-living pilgrim’s journey through the afterlife connects with issues of interpretation and reading practice. In Inferno ii, the pilgrim insists that he is not worthy of his predecessors on this journey through the afterlife: he is no Paul, no Aeneas. In Purgatorio ii, Casella attempts, and fails, to embrace the pilgrim’s physical body. And in Paradiso ii, the mystery of the pilgrim’s physical ascent into the Heaven of the Moon is described as being as inaccessible to human comprehension as the Incarnation itself. The mirror experiment shows that the limitations of empirical experience can be demonstrated, and indeed shows the value of questioning and testing those limitations; but it also shows that in order to grasp the kinds of learning that are taking place on this journey, a particular Christ-like perspective needs to be adopted. That perspective is, I have suggested, evident throughout these three cantos; Paradiso ii extends that perspective from interpreting time, and events in time, to interpreting the created world itself.

What these three cantos have to offer the present project, then, is a rich rationale for vertical reading. As we have seen, the strong engagement with notions of time which open Inferno ii and Purgatorio ii suggests a progressively deeper understanding of the ways in which the linear passage of time is placed in dialogue with an understanding of time in the light of the Incarnation. That understanding in turn reflects upon the practice of reading and engaging with text, as modelled in the performance of Psalm 113, framed by the sign of the cross; but this practice extends to the interpretation of the created world. Individual events and phenomena are to be appreciated in the light of an Incarnational perspective. The contrast between modes of reading and interpreting which fail to do so (the seductions of Casella’s song; those readers in their little boat whom Dante advises to turn around; the naïve, purely material accounts of the spots on the moon) and those which succeed in doing so (Beatrice’s account of her own grounding in God in Inferno ii; the performance of the Psalm; those few readers who have reached for the bread of angels; the wise account of the spots on the moon) can be seen, through this vertical approach, to inform these three cantos in powerful ways, and to provide a crucial grounding for reading the Commedia as a whole.

1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website,

2 Aquinas, STh, II-II, q. 83, a. 11, ad. 3: ‘illi qui sunt in Purgatorio [...] non sunt in statu orandi, sed magis ut oretur pro eis’. References to Aquinas are to the Leonine edition available online via the Corpus Thomisticum,

3 Moralia in Job, XXIX, 2 (Patrologia Latina 76, 0478B).

4 Ibid., XXIX, 2.

5 For summaries of the debate on the authorship, see for instance Robert Hollander, Dante’s Epistle to Cangrande (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1993), or Luca Azzetta, ‘Le chiose alla Commedia di Andrea Lancia, L’Epistola a Can Grande e altre questioni dantesche’, L’Alighieri 21 (2003), 5-76.

6 On Casella, see for instance Robert Durling, ‘The Meeting With Casella’, Durling and Martinez, Purgatorio, pp. 593-94. John Freccero, ‘Casella’s Song’, Dante Studies 91 (1973), 73-80.

7 On the question of whether the episode marks some sort of rejection of Dante’s former philosophical and poetic practices, see for example Freccero, ‘Casella’s Song’; Ignazio Baldelli, ‘Linguistica e interpretazione: l’amore di Catone, di Casella, di Carlo Martello e le canzoni del Convivio II e III’, in Miscellanea di studi linguistici in onore di Walter Belardi (Rome: Il Calamo, 1994), II, 535-55; John A. Scott, ‘The Unfinished Convivio as a Pathway to the Comedy’, Dante Studies 113 (1995), 31-56.

8 For more detail on the Eucharistic imagery in these cantos, see Matthew Treherne, ‘Liturgical Personhood: Creation, Penitence and Praise in the Commedia’, in Dante’s ‘Commedia’: Theology as Poetry, ed. by Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2010), pp. 131-60.

9 See for instance, Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s “Comedy” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 111-19; Manlio Pastore Stocchi, ‘Dante e la luna’, Lettere italiane 33 (1981), 153-74.

10 For the fullest discussion of the limitations of the mirror experiment, see John Kleiner, Mismapping the Underworld: Daring and Error in Dante’s ‘Comedy’ (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 100-07; Moevs, Metaphysics, pp. 117-19 draws out the Christological implications.