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7. The Wheeling Sevens1

© Simon A. Gilson, CC BY 4.0 http://dx.doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0066.08

Simon A. Gilson

Vertical reading might, at one level, be seen as a reaction to the Lectura Dantis, the formalized, often institutionalized, reading of a single canto that began with Boccaccio and continues to this day. For Dante’s early readers, and probably for at least the first two centuries after his death, the Lectura was a means not simply of explaining the poem but of making Dante authoritative in relation to classical authors, treating major theoretical debates, defining his and one’s own literary and intellectual status, and, in Florence at least, celebrating civic identity. As we reach the seven-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the poet’s birth, the Lectura Dantis remains extremely popular in Italy, and is practiced in North America and the United Kingdom. It is, amongst other things, a good teaching device, offers an excellent opportunity for engaging with a broader non-academic public, and is also a good way to hear the poem read out loud.2 Concentration on a single canto is far from being wrong-headed. The canto is a remarkably innovative Dantean invention; and, as a narrative unit that is both open and closed, it constitutes a fundamental building bloc in the poem. In Dante’s hands, it is wonderfully flexible and varied, both thematically and stylistically; and it is vital to the narrative drive, memorability and performability of the poem. But if we are looking for more profound analysis, richer contextualization, a stronger sense of what the poem’s messages and strategies are, and perhaps also for close critical reading, then, the Lectura Dantis has often had its limitations, especially given that over time the tradition has acquired a degree of in-built conservatism, a tendency towards self-referentiality, as Dantists have looked back to earlier efforts of fellow Dantists.3

Of course, there has long been a basic recognition that we must go beyond the canto, an awareness that it needs to be fitted into broader patterns, including broader blocs of cantos, and a perception that some cantos are more ‘pivotal’ than others in acting as ‘lodestones’ engaging the reader to reflect on what the poem is revealing.4 The main way that readers, past and present, have tended to break down what one might call the constricted hermeneutical possibilities of reading a single canto is through a technique known as reading ‘Dante with Dante’ or ‘leggere Dante con Dante’. Such techniques again begin with Dante’s very first readers, and in some periods form a central part of critical vocabulary and method. In the sixteenth century, for example, it became almost an exegetical axiom that an author is best explained by his other works, that each author is his own best interpreter.5 Vertical reading might be seen as a peculiarly privileged form of reading Dante with Dante, for it is well known that some patterns of verticality across numerically corresponding cantos from each cantica are emphatically marked out so that they amount to powerful structuring principles. The best-known example in Dante studies is the way in which the Sixes deal with political matters, but critical attention has also been paid to the Tens, where we see the development of interrelated concerns with nature, artistry and fame; the Fifteens and Sixteens that probe the significance of Dante’s exile and the relationships between politics and language; and the Twenty-fives and Twenty-sixes that are concerned with the body, language and poetry.6 Although no one has yet made a systematic effort to engage in vertical readings across the entire poem, this does not mean that we are working entirely in a vacuum. Several critical essays, some dating back to the 1980s, have used the term ‘vertical reading’, in particular Victoria Kirkham’s treatment of the eleventh cantos and sections of a monograph by Richard Shoaf that deals extensively with the relationships between the Thirties.7 Perhaps the best-known earlier contribution is, however, an essay on the so-called technique of the parallel episode, ‘la tecnica degli episodi paralleli’, by Amilcare Iannucci.8 Here, Iannucci draws attention to the way that Dante criticizes himself, that is, how Dante provides his own self-exegesis within the body of the poem, by consciously aligning episodes that have precise parallels (though this does not always mean aligning parallel cantos). Iannucci’s essay is also important because it draws attention to antecedents for Dante, in particular the function of the parallel passage in Biblical exegesis. Of considerable value, too, is the innovative use of endnotes under the rubric of ‘Inter cantica’ (though the correspondences are again far from being exclusively focused on parallel cantos) provided by Ronald Martinez and Robert Durling in the commentary to their edition of Purgatorio.9

As this overview has begun to suggest, then, the main value of vertical reading can be related to, and subsumed within, more general features of the poem’s textuality, in particular its macro-structure, its concern with form and the fashioning of its meta-textual structure. As regards the macro-structure, our ability to discern patterns – and this applies to certain parallel or numerically corresponding cantos – is a product of the Dantean preoccupation with order, symmetry and balance in all that he does. To use a celebrated, if in part flawed, analogy, we might think about the way the poem has often been compared to a great Gothic cathedral in which all parts cohere in concord, and in which all particularities and facets form part of an intricate system of correspondences that are subordinated to a grand design.10 Of course, this is a preoccupation to be found throughout Dante’s production, and most especially in the Vita nova, the Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia.11 But in the Commedia such ordering takes on a remarkable intensity and prominence in a poem to which ‘mano e cielo’, ‘heaven and earth’ (Par., xxv. 2), have contributed, and which provides a comic synthesis of the two ‘volumi’, the book of creation and that of the Bible. Every student of the poem is, for example, familiar with the regimentation of the Threes: three cantiche, thirty-three cantos (although of course for Inferno the presence of a prologue and its numerical ‘deformity’ raises interesting questions about where the vertical line might be placed),12 three subsections of each cantica, the three guides, the three visions upon which each cantica ends. One thinks also of such equally well-known features as the ending of each of the cantiche on ‘stelle’, and the predilection for numerical correspondences of various kinds throughout the poem, the most prominent and powerful of which are found in the central cantos of Purgatorio.13 There is, of course, a well-known Biblical underpinning here, the Book of Wisdom 11.26: ‘Sed omnia mensura et ordo et pondere disposuisti’ [God ordered all things in measure, weight and number], and Dante may well have been particularly sensitive and susceptible to a sort of neo-Pythagorean, Christianizing aesthetic of numbers. Number is very much a matter of poetry, too: in the De vulgari eloquentia (II. iv. 2) Dante defines poetry in relation to rhetoric and music, and, for Dante, music reflects the order governing the entire universe, an order which should regulate human nature. In this respect, it is notable that, in late ancient and medieval culture, seven is a very important number indeed, one which evokes strong associations with creation and perfection. In his De doctrina Christiana – a work well known to Dante – Augustine refers to the power of numbers and draws particular attention to the number seven as associated with life, the body and creatureliness.14 And an early fifth-century Platonizing commentator of Cicero and Virgil, Macrobius, whose commentary on Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis was also known to Dante, viewed the number seven as key to the universe and as the regulator of the entire fabric of the human body.15 Though we need to be careful with a theme such as the human body, which is so pervasive in the poem, it may well not be a coincidence, given the Augustinian and Macrobian antecedents, that creation and the human body are major concerns in our group of cantos, and especially in Purgatorio vii and Paradiso vii.

As regards questions of form and metatextuality, of a piece with Dante’s love for and imposition of symmetry, is the remarkable craftsmanship of the poem, the incredible attention to the word that means he often marks out correspondences for reader based on systems of intratextual echoes. Such techniques involve not only words but also linguistic formulae, rhyme words and series of rhymes, images and motifs, and they can take place within and across cantos, and within and across cantiche in ways that invite us to go back to the earlier usage.16 To give just a few well-known examples, one thinks of words such as ‘amore’, ‘follia’, ‘punto’, ‘legno’, ‘poeta’, where all successive uses of these words bear on one another, as do textually prominent turns of phrase like ‘come altrui piacque’ (Inf., xxvi. 141 and Purg., i. 133); or rhyme series like ‘amore–ardore–valore’, or, to keep with the Sevens, the rhyme series of ‘labbia–abbia–rabbia’.17 Similar formal patterning based on recurrence is found with select motifs or select individual figures – one thinks of the references to Ulysses in each cantica, or to Ovidian figures such as Jason, Narcissus, and Phaethon, or to Biblical figures such as Paul and David, or even to pagan philosophers such as Aristotle and Averroës. Such intricate play of symmetries is strictly related to the poem’s extraordinary artistry, and the way that Dante constantly invites the reader to return, to go back and reflect on what has come, to compare and cross-reference, to revisit. Of course, Dante does this most notably with a number of addresses to his reader which are in nuce meta-literary stagings of the poem’s overall approach to its readership. Equally significant are those passages when the protagonist himself, late in his journey, is twice told to look back on his journey so far (to ‘rimirare in giù’ and ‘adimare il viso’ [look back down and lower your gaze] [Par., xxii. 128; xxvii. 77-78]). His backward glance is almost a trope for how to read the poem in retrospect, and we should recall here a celebrated essay now some fifty years old that picks up on the role of the reader’s retrospective vision, and how meaning is only fully seized at the end of poem. The essay is, of course, Charles Singleton’s ‘The Vistas in Retrospect’ with its central thesis that patterns are ‘revealed in retrospect […] down the unfolding line of the journey’ and its illustration of this by means of a single word ‘ruina’, whose successive appearances connect it with the earthquake at Christ’s death, illustrating that moment with progressive clarity.18 Even more valuable and critically alert than Singleton is a study by Zygmunt Barański on ‘structural retrospection’ which is concerned with a pivotal canto: Purgatorio xxvii. Here, Barański shows the need to look back before the end of the poem, and how Dante’s reader is constantly called on to do this by precise textual and situational echoes: the essay shows, too, how inter-canto echoing is part of Dante’s mastery in the poem. What is more, Barański gives some tantalizing suggestions about ways in which medieval rhetoric and the medieval sermon utilize techniques related to verbal reminiscence such as dispositio, ordo, repetitio, correspondentia within a framework of backward-looking reference.19 Further work needs to be done on these and related techniques in medieval art, biblical exegesis and the medieval art of memory so as to allow us to historicize and understand better other kinds of vertical reading practiced in Dante’s culture.

The discussion so far has been attentive to the need to place vertical reading within broader frameworks, and it is worth noting that all the contributions mentioned to date (Singleton, Barański, Iannucci, Durling and Martinez, as well as some other recent work on retrospection and related critical themes) are rarely concerned with vertical reading as such.20 The very features of the poem that make vertical reading potentially productive also mean that we cannot restrict our reading to the numerically corresponding cantos alone but need to extend constantly the net of correspondences to all areas of the poem. Our reading of the Commedia needs to be as alert to the various points at which Dante’s text sends us back and to the fact that the ideal reader’s memory needs to be as agile as is Dante’s gaze in the poem. To adapt a line from the poem, one might say that our reading needs to move ‘di qua, di là, di sù, di giù’ [here, there, down, up (Inf., v. 43)]: to oscillate, to weave back and forth.

After this preamble on the value and limitations of the critical practice of vertical reading, let us begin to look more closely at the Sevens. The approach adopted will put into practice the points made above, and thus we will first cast outside the vertical line of the Sevens to indicate some of the intercantica echoes that are most relevant. We will then pay more exclusive attention to the Sevens in large part by thematizing and grouping shared concerns, as well as by probing more precise formal intercantica correspondences and echoes between our three cantos. Some brief ‘rubrics’ may be helpful in focusing our enquiry. Inferno vii opens with a bestial, demonic infernal guardian, Pluto, shouting out incomprehensible words; after Virgil silences the monster, Dante-character espies but does not recognize the damned in the fourth circle of Hell; these souls are the avaricious and prodigal, who circle around one another. There follows a lengthy disquisition by Virgil on Fortune. We then reach a new circle, the fourth one, that of the wrathful and sullen, who are shown fully immersed in the river Styx, gurgling up bubbles of air under the water. Purgatorio vii opens with a sequence suspended and carried over from the previous canto, as we are presented with the meeting between the thirteenth-century Mantuan troubadour Sordello and Virgil – Virgil is, of course, still accompanying Dante. The meeting allows Dante to discuss Virgil’s status and the inability to move upwards in Purgatory after dark; in the second half of the canto we encounter a valley of astonishing natural beauty and the eight earthly rulers or princes that inhabit it. Paradiso vii opens with a hymn of praise to God from a speaker who has dominated the previous canto, the Emperor Justinian, and then almost the entirety of the canto is taken up with a lengthy ‘theological’ discourse – a full 130 lines – by Beatrice on creation, original sin, the punishment of humankind, the Incarnation and Atonement.

If we are to remain alert to the call to retrospection set up in the reader’s own memory, then we will need to take account of a remarkable number and range of intercanto echoes. Pluto’s nonsense language in the opening line of Inferno vii is strongly recalled in the Giant Nimrod’s gibberish in Inferno xxxi. 66, and his lack of clarity has a counterpoint in the lucidity of Arnaut Daniel’s Occitan in Purgatorio xxvi. Pluto’s swollen, impotent rage can be related to that of the Theban Capaneus in Inferno xiv (here we find the same rhyme-set ‘rabbia – labbia – abbia’, applied in lines 65-69).21 The outcry against avarice that targets the ‘maladetto lupo’ in Inferno vii. 8 sends us back to the she-wolf in Inferno i. 94-102 and is modulated further in the terrace of avarice and prodigality in Purgatorio xx. 10, where the ‘lupa’ is named again. The tendency to connect avarice with the clergy (all the sinners of avarice and prodigality in Inferno vii are tonsured [ll. 38-39, 46-48]) is emphasized monumentally and memorably in Inferno xix, in Purgatorio xix, and then again in Paradiso, especially ix. 127-42 and xxviii. 55, where the pursuit of lucre is linked to the ravenous, rapacious wolves that are the leaders of the Church. Virgil’s discussion of ‘Fortuna’ needs to be situated in relation to Purgatorio xx, where, in lines 13-15, the rotation of the heavens is mentioned in the context of a plea for the deity to put an end to the rapacious dominion of the she-wolf we have already mentioned. But the Virgilian discourse should also be positioned in relation to Inferno xv. 95-96 and Paradiso xvi. 82-84, lines in which Fortune is explicitly associated with heavenly motion. And of course Virgil’s unusual presentation of Fortune in Inferno vii as an angelic minister of God’s providential design, one which operates as a special motive force in the heavens to cause the change of fortunes on Earth, should be located against the discussion of angelic operations in the cosmos in relation to divine order and providence in the opening lines of Paradiso i, as well as to Beatrice’s first doctrinal discourse in this canto and in cantos ii, viii, ix and xxviii.

As for Purgatorio vii, the canto is – as many critics have noted – strongly bound up with the previous one (in the second cantica the political material flows into the following canto in a way that does not happen in Hell). However, the discussion of Virgil’s plight also sends us back to his status as unwitting rebel in Inferno i, and his place in Limbo in Inferno iv. Martinez and Michelangelo Picone have noted how the description of the Valley in which eight Princes are encountered establishes a series of recalls – shadow, sighs, isolated place, limitations of human action without faith – that take us back to Limbo.22 The intense natural beauty of the valley is outdone by the supernatural beauty of the engravings on the first terrace of Purgatory. The pairing of former enemies amongst the princes in the second half of the canto gains further light from the more epistemological perspective of former ‘intellectual’ enemies harmoniously reconciled in the Heaven of the Sun (Par., x-xiv). And the celebrated apostrophe to human probity rarely being an inherited virtue is re-examined at greater length in relation to human talents and their providential distribution in Paradiso viii.

As regards Paradiso vii, one notes again the very close interconnections with the previous canto; indeed Beatrice’s extended discourse on resurrection is nominally at least a response to terminology used in the previous canto. Paradiso vii with its attention to the heavens, questions of order and metaphysics, and theological discussion of sin, atonement, redemption and resurrection needs to be related to all the earlier disquisitions by Beatrice in Paradiso. The role of divine providence is progressively refined both in the following two cantos and in Paradiso xix. 22-36. As for other kinds of situational parallels, thematic correspondences, and echoing of specific motifs and words that are notable in Paradiso vii, one might offer the following: the idea that Beatrice’s smile would make one happy in fire (Par., vii. 17-18) is a strategic recall of Purgatorio xxvii. 46-54 (but also of the Vita nova and the canzone ‘Lo doloroso amor che mi conduce’) and Inferno i. 119; the idea of ‘freno’, or rein on human will, can be related to Purgatorio vi. 88; the idea of distinction between creation and generation is first adumbrated in Purgatorio xxv. 37-78; the metaphor of divine power imprinting itself on the wax of celestial matter (recalled twice in the canto) is developed earlier in Paradiso i. 40-42 and later in cantos viii. 127-29 and xiii. 67-75; the words ‘follia’ and ‘cortesia’, paired in rhyme, need unpacking against other usages of the terms in the poem; the image of the divine creation of the human soul enamoured with its maker (Par., vii. 143-44) sends us back again to such passages as Purgatorio xvi. 85-90 and xxv. 70-72; the closing argumentation regarding the resurrection of the body should send us scurrying away to all the other passages that deal with such teachings and themes across the poem; and the grandiloquent lines on divine goodness shining in all things but with different reflections (Par., vii. 74-75, 81) can be related to the theme of varied intensity and reception of light in the early cantos of Paradiso (Par., i. 1-3; ii passim, esp. 142-48; v. 7-12).

If, however, we restrict ourselves only to the laboratory of verticality, and test out the thematic overlaps amongst the Sevens then one might identify the following as regards shared thematic or imagistic fields: (i) questions related to the nature of language and the human voice; (ii) motifs related to imagery of dance, and especially of wheeling or going up and down; (iii) parallels that turn on the progressive refinement of perspective involving questions of fortune and providence, of heavenly power and human will, the interrelationships between justice, sin, and suffering, and treatment of the human body in each of the three cantos. As far as formal parallels are concerned, there are three main areas: (i) the invented language with which both Inferno vii and Paradiso vii open; (ii) correspondences or partial ones in rhyme series; and (iii) marked repetition of several key words such as ‘colpa’, ‘pene’, ‘giustizia’, ‘seme’, ‘vendetta’.

Let us begin with the most suggestive formal parallelism offered up by a partial vertical reading, that is, the one provided by the respective openings of Inferno vii and Paradiso vii:

Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!
cominciò Pluto con la voce chioccia;
e quel savio gentil, che tutto seppe,

disse per confortarmi: ‘Non ti noccia
la tua paura; ché, poder ch’elli abbia,
non ci torrà lo scender questa roccia. (Inf., vii. 1-6)

[‘Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!’, began Plutus with his clucking voice; and that noble sage, who knew all things, said, to strengthen me: ‘Let not your fear harm you; for whatever power he may have shall not prevent us from going down this cliff.’]

Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth,
Superillustrans claritate tua
Felices ignes horum malacòth!

così, volgendosi a la nota sua
fu viso a me cantare essa sustanza
sopra la qual doppio lume s’addua;

ed essa a l’altre mossero a sua danza. (Par., vii, 1-7)

[‘Osanna, sanctus Deus sabaòth, superillustrans claritate tua felices ignes horum malacòth!’ Thus, revolving to his notes, this substance seemed to me to sing, on whom double light is twinned, and he and the others moved in their dance.]

Although the parallelism between the passages has received relatively little comment, one could not wish for a better example of the suggestiveness and potency of vertical reading, or at least of partial vertical reading. We have two examples of invented language that are balanced symmetrically at the opening of the respective cantos. What is more, in each canto the invented language elicits a wider response to that vocal utterance. The audible but unintelligible utterance shrieked out by Pluto, ‘Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!’ in a ‘voce chioccia’ [clucking voice] (line 2) has deceived many commentators and critics who have attempted to trace the words to Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, French or English, various Italian dialects such as Modenese and Genoese, and even to Maltese dialect. The words do not make sense. What Dante is doing here is inventing artificial, nonsense language from a bricolage of pseudo-words and phonemes from other languages (including Latin and Hebrew) in what is, as Robert Hollander has shown, a parodic inversion of the five words of clear speech called for by St Paul in I Corinthians 14:19, a passage concerned with the over-reliance of the faithful on speaking in tongues.23 Pluto’s words bear directly upon the theme of language and its failure, both in the segment of the poem that extends from Inferno iii to ix (where in iii, v and vi, Virgil had reaffirmed the preordained nature of Dante’s journey in clashes with other demons), and, more narrowly, within canto vii itself, where Virgil’s words are juxtaposed with the impotent garbling of the demonic guardian. The opposition between linguistic efficacy and garrulous verbal utterance is foregrounded throughout the canto: first by the encounter with Pluto, then by the doctrinal disquisition in the middle of the canto (ll. 70-99), and finally at the end of canto itself which also involves, like Pluto’s pseudo-words, failed speech, as the souls submerged in the slime of the Stygian marsh gurgle audible, but unintelligible, bubbles of sound from beneath its muddy depths. Still broader and fundamental implications inform the connections between language and ethics, in particular the way that moral and spiritual failings are reflected not only in deviant applications of language, but also in distortions of vocal utterance: this is a major theme of Hell, of course, but it is especially prominent within Inferno vii, with the barking of souls in line 43 and the lack of ‘parola integra’ in line 126.24

The extent of the deviance, the lack of clarity and the ethical failings do not emerge fully, however, until we compare oppositionally, and through vertical reading, Pluto’s utterance with the equally mixed and invented language which Dante strategically places at the opening of Paradiso vii. Here, the words are those of the Emperor Justinian in his hymn of praise to the deity, and – as in Inferno vii. 1 – Dante uses Latin and Hebrew words, most of which are found in the Vulgate Bible (‘Osanna’, ‘sabaòth’, ‘malacòth’).25 The opening of Paradiso vii is more inventive at the phonetic and lexical level: the rare superillustrans is a Latin neologism coined on the basis of pseudo-Dionysian concepts and related terminology. More important still, though, is the way the conscious alignment of two examples of invented language in parallel cantos encourages us to compare and to take account of the profound oppositional tension between both openings. Unlike Pluto’s animalesque phonemes, Justinian’s mellifluous hymn of praise to God (with its Biblical and liturgical echoes) has both morphology and syntax. Justinian’s words refocus our attention on how Pluto’s vocal utterance lacks any semantically organizing structures, and this in turn helps us to appreciate more clearly the context of that earlier encounter, the nature of the speaker and the utterance itself, an utterance that may contain some of the physical attributes of speech but cannot be articulated into a meaningful sequence.26

The oppositional nature of the two passages viewed along the vertical axis informs too the narrative sequences that then follow:

Poi si rivolse a quella ’nfiata labbia,
E disse: ‘Taci, maladetto lupo! […]

quali dal vento le gonfiate vele
caggiono avvolte, poi che l’alber fiacca,
tal cadde a terra la fiera crudele. (Inf., vii. 7-8, 13-15)

[Then he turned back to that swollen face and said: ‘Silence, cursed wolf! […] As when sails swollen by the wind fall tangled, when the mast gives way: so did that cruel beast fall to earth.]

Io dubitava e dicea ‘Dille, dille!’
fra me, ‘dille’ dicea ‘a la mia donna
che mi diseta con le dolci stille’. […]

Poco sofferse me cotal Beatrice
e cominciò, raggiandomi d’un riso
tal, che nel foco faria l’uom felice. (Par., vii, 10-13, 16-18)

[I was in doubt, saying, ‘Tell her, tell her!’ within myself, ‘tell her’, I was saying, ‘tell my lady, who slakes my thirst with her sweet distillings.’ […] Beatrice suffered me so but a little while, and she began, shining on me with a smile that would make one happy in the fire.]

Here we should contrast Beatrice’s luminosity and ethereal smile with the gross physicality of Pluto’s swollen ‘labbia’, the sweetness of her drops of wisdom (sweetness is of course a key element of poetry) with the ‘voce chioccia’ of the monstrum. And one notes, too, the attention Dante pays to the syllables of Beatrice’s name and their power over him – causing him to pass out – and its contrast with the inability of syllables to mean anything in Pluto’s utterance and their lack of ‘poder’ [power].27

A further oppositional element between the opening sequences of the first and the third cantica is found in the motif of dance. Dante’s bitter presentation of the ‘enforced’ semi-circular dancing of avaricious and prodigal souls in Inferno vii. 24 forms a sharp contrast with the harmonious ‘danza’ of souls marked up in Paradiso vii. 7 (as we have noted, this is a motif that begins here and extends out into Paradiso, especially the Heaven of the Sun). The dance motif is, in fact, part of a broader – and more significant – set of patterned concerns with circling and wheeling across the Sevens which are explicitly highlighted with the reference to Fortune’s wheel in Inferno vii (l. 96: ‘volve sua spera’ [turns her sphere]), and the semi-circular movements around one another of the avaricious and prodigal.28 The idea of Fortune as providential wheeling is recast in a later passage on wheeling movement in Purgatorio vii. Here, we learn that, with nightfall on the Mountain, it is impossible to ascend without divine grace (‘ir suso’), even though one can ‘tornare in giuso’:

ché la notturna tenebra, ad ir suso;
quella col nonpoder la voglia intriga.

Ben si poria con lei tornare in giuso
e passeggiar la costa intorno errando,
mentre che l’orizzonte il dì tien chiuso. (Purg., vii. 56-60)

[[…] the darkness of night, which shackles the will with inability. One could of course descend and walk wandering along the shore, while the horizon holds the day closed up.]

The final parallel canto, Paradiso vii, develops the idea of circularity not only through the dance of the blessed but also in theological and metaphysical terms, by showing that man could not obtain satisfaction for original sin through acts of humility because his disobedience had led him to prideful overreaching, to ‘ir suso’:

Non potea l’uomo ne’ termini suoi
mai sodisfar, per non potere ir giuso
con umilitate obedïendo poi,

quanto disobediendo intese ir suso; […]
per far l’uom sufficiente a rilevarsi. (Par., vii. 97-100, 116)

[man could not, within his limits, ever atone, since he could not descend with obedient humility afterwards as far as in his disobedience he earlier intended to rise up; […] in order to make mankind sufficient to raise itself up.]

Thus, we see how, across both Purgatorio vii and Paradiso vii, motion up and down is governed by divine liberality and how this works in relation to human will and power: ‘giuso’, ‘suso’ and ‘chiuso’ form an identical rhyme series that binds together the two cantos, refining the relationship between Fortune, humankind, grace and divine liberality.

The third set of thematic parallels again concerns progressive refinement of levels of understanding through enlargement of perspective. The words ‘giustizia’ and ‘pena’ that we first meet in the poet’s apostrophe to divine judgement in Inferno vii. 19-21, though sidestepped by Virgil in his repeated insistence on his non-culpability in Purgatorio vii, receive fuller explanation in the light of the divine justice of the Redemption and its more global explanation of justice, sin and punishment. Similar strategies may govern the use of human will across all cantos, and also allusions to the resurrection of the body (Inf., vii. 55-57; Par., vii. passim, but esp. 142-48). It is perhaps tempting to examine the varying treatment of the body across all the Sevens, especially given the associations carried by the number itself. Bodily parts certainly provide a remarkably rich set of lexical items in all three cantos. Paradiso vii, for example, closes by arguing that the divinely created nature of the ‘umana carne’ [human flesh] (l. 147) of the ‘uom che non nacque’ [the man who was not born] (l. 26), that is, Adam’s body, demonstrates the doctrine of resurrection; the gallery of princes presented in Purgatorio vii is strongly physiognomic; and, though unrecognizable, the bodily parts of the avaricious and the prodigal and the ‘accidiosi’ are repeatedly named in degrading and violent contexts in Inferno vii.29 One risk in such an enterprise is that we might end up privileging echoes that are not necessarily patterned or significant but rather simply what happens in lengthy, highly fashioned literary works, especially when major themes are considered, as is the case here.30

Let us conclude with some further commentary on the treatment of Fortune, providence and angels across the Sevens. It is well known that Virgil’s lecture is built on BoethiusConsolation of Philosophy: the lament, the explanation of a providential power, the imperscrutability, the speed of moments, the way Fortune is cursed by men, the emptiness of things assigned to Fortune, the image of the wheel, the idea of Fortune as ruler – all these are Boethian elements. Perhaps the most un-Boethian feature of the discourse is the way Dante conceives Fortune as forming part of the cosmological order, as a separate, divinely willed angelic mover controlling the distribution of goods in the sublunar world. Cosmological and angelological emphases are picked up, and refined, in both the later Sevens, above all in Paradiso vii, where the creation of the angelic hierarchies is presented more broadly as part of the providential order, and the angels are seen to control all processes in the sublunar realm. The wealth of Boethian references in Inferno vii (in particular the echoes of Consolation II. i. 60-62; II. ii. 1-14; IV. vi), is well known, but it is interesting that the parallel cantos also contain prominent Boethian reminiscences. In Purgatorio vii. 121-23, human virtue is attributed not to parental intervention but to divine origin: ‘Rade volte resurge per li rami / l’umana probitate; e questo vole / quei che la dà, perché da lui si chiama’ [Seldom does human probity rise up through the / branches, and this is willed by him who gives it, / that it may be attributed to him]. It seems likely that these lines contain an echo of Cons., III, m. 6. 7-8.31 And in Beatrice’s discourse in Paradiso vii, especially lines 64-66 (‘La bontà divina che da sé sperne / ogne livore, ardendo in sé, sfavilla / sì che dispiega le bellezze etterne’ [God’s goodness, which spurns all envy, / aflame within itself, flashes forth unfolding the / eternal beauties]), one finds a markedly Christianized reworking of the celebrated Boethian hymn from Book III, metre 9, one which, as Luca Lombardo has recently shown, bears the traces of William of Conches’ own Christianizing exegesis.32 The three Boethian citations are quite well known but a vertical reading of them suggests the possibility that they might form part of a conscious system of recalls in which Dante recasts the Boethian echoes so that they become ever more Christianizing and Platonizing. With such a perspective in mind, we might view the citations as moving us from Virgil’s at times theologically suspect discourse, where Fortune ‘persegue / suo regno come il loro gli altri dei’ [carries out her rule as the other gods do theirs] and ‘necessità la fa esser veloce’ [necessity makes her swift] (Inf., vii. 86-7 and 89), to Beatrice’s presentation of how the divine goodness lovingly and freely irradiates all things, unfolding the eternal beauties of the heavens.33

The observations provided above help to indicate the potential of vertical reading for illuminating and reconsidering connections – above all in precise verbal echoing, image patterns, situational parallels and perhaps even prominent intertexts – between sets of numerically corresponding cantos. In line with our opening reflections, we have nonetheless seen how circumspection needs to be exercised in the claims that might be made for vertical reading. The Sevens offer some rich and interesting material at the level of verbal, situational and imagistic patterning, but we have seen that any such correspondences are often found only in two of the three cantos. We have noted, too, some of the dangers of a thematizing reading of groups of three cantos: such thematization needs to take account of the poem’s capacity for retrospection at multiple points outside the vertical line that might intersect three cantos with the same number.


1 The video of this lecture is available at the Cambridge Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy website, https://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1521936

I wish to thank George Corbett and Heather Webb for their kind invitation to give the lecture on which this essay is based and for their assistance in preparing the essay for publication. I am also grateful to Zyg Barański for his helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

2 On the history of the Lectura Dantis, see Aldo Vallone s.v., ‘Lectura Dantis’, in Enciclopedia Dantesca, 6 vols (Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970-76), III, 606-09. Important current or recent collections or cycles of readings include: Lectura Dantis Turicensis, Lectura Dantis Andreapolitana, Lectura Dantis Bononiensis, Lectura Dantis Californiana. Important earlier collections include: Lectura Dantis Newberryana, Lectura Dantis Cantabrigiensis, Lectura Dantis Virginiana, Lectura Dantis Neopolitana. An interesting format is the grouping of three cantos in Esperimenti danteschi (published by Marietti in 2008, 2009, 2010) based at the Università degli Studi in Milan.

3 On the canto, see esp. Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘The Poetics of Meter: Terza rima, “canto”, “canzon”, “cantica”’, in Dante Now: Current Trends in Dante Studies, ed. by Theodore J. Cachey Jr. (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995), pp. 3-41; Teodolinda Barolini, The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 21-47, 257-66.

4 For these terms, see Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘Structural Retrospection in Dante’s Comedy: The Case of Purgatorio xxvii’, Italian Studies 41 (1986), 1-23; Barolini, The Undivine Comedy, p. 89. The late Peter Armour used to tell his own colourfully imagined anecdote of Dante standing up at the Cangrande court to recite his poem: in this version, the courtiers would look at one another and mutter words to the effect that ‘No, not Paradiso VII (one of the most theologically dense in the entire poem); why can’t we have the swooning Paolo and the seductive Francesca again’.

5 See Giovan Battista Gelli, Letture edite e inedite sopra la Commedia di Dante, ed. by Carlo Negroni, 2 vols (Florence: Bocca, 1887), i, 86: ‘[…] non si potere espor meglio uno scrittore, che con le parole sue medesime’.

6 For these examples, see, on the Sixes, Camillo Massi, ‘A proposito dei sesti canti della Commedia’, L’Alighieri 7 (1996), 91-94; on the Tens, Simon Gilson, ‘Divine and Natural Artistry in the Commedia’, in Art and Nature in Dante: Literary and Theological Essays, ed. by Daragh O’Connell and Jennifer Petrie (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013), pp. 153-86; The Divine Comedy. Volume 2. Purgatory, ed. and trans. by Robert M. Durling with additional notes by Robert M. Durling and Ronald L. Martinez (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 171-72; on the Fifteens and Sixteens, Richard Kay, ‘Parallel Cantos in Dante’s Commedia’, Res publica litterarum 15 (1992), 109-13; Simon A. Gilson, ‘Inferno xvi’, in Lectura Dantis Andreapolitana, ed. by Claudia Rossignoli and Robert Wilson (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming); on the Twenty-fives and Twenty-sixes, Franco Fido, ‘Writing Like God – or Better? Symmetries in Dante’s 26th and 27th Cantos of the Commedia’, Italica 53 (1986), 250-64; Kevin Brownlee, ‘Why the Angels speak Italian: Dante as Vernacular Poeta in Paradiso xxv’, Poetics Today 5:3 (1984), 597-610. See also, on the Twenty-sevens, Roberto Antonelli, ‘Come e perché Dante ha scritto la Divina Commedia’, Critica del testo 14 (2011), 1-21; and the following note for the Elevens and the Thirties.

7 See Victoria Kirkham, ‘Eleven is for Evil: Measured Trespass in Dante’s Commedia’, Allegorica 10 (1989), 27-50; Richard Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word: Money, Images and Reference in late Medieval Poetry (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983), esp. part one. See also Paul Shaw, ‘A Parallel Structure for the Divina Commedia’, Stanford Italian Studies 7:1/2 (1987), 67-76.

8 See Amilcare A. Iannucci, ‘Autoesegesi dantesca: la tecnica dell’“episodio” parallelo’, Lettere Italiane 33:1 (1981), 305-28. See also Kay, ‘Parallel Cantos’.

9 See Durling and Martinez, The Divine Commedy: Purgatory, esp. pp. 25 and 33, who refer to ‘Inter cantica’ as ‘system of recall of the earlier cantiche, often in the form of parallels between similarly numbered cantos, sometimes even between similarly numbered lines’ (p. 33).

10 It may well be better to use analogies borrowed from other fields. Osip Mandelstam, who commented gnomically that ‘future commentary on Dante belongs to the natural sciences’, observed in particular how it is ‘unthinkable that one might encompass with the eye or visually imagine to oneself this shape of thirteen thousand facets with its monstrous exactitude’. For Mandelstaum, ‘European Dante criticism […] has nailed him to the landscape of Hell. […] No one has yet approached it with a geologist’s hammer, in order to ascertain the crystalline structure of the rock, in order to see the particles of other minerals in it, to study its smoky colour, its garish patterning, to judge it as a mineral crystal which has been subjected to the most varied series of accidents’, in Osip Mandelstam, Osip Mandelstam: Selected Essays, trans. by Sidney Monas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1977), quotations at pp. 16, 14 and 23 (from ‘Conversation on Dante’, translated by Clarence Brown and Robert Hughes).

11 On the cultivation of symmetries in the ordering of earlier works, see John A. Scott, Understanding Dante (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), pp. 22-23 (Vita nova), pp. 140-41 (Convivio), p. 148 (Monarchia); Larry Peterman, ‘Reading the Convivio’, Dante Studies 103 (1985), 125-38 (p. 134).

12 Kay is alert to this point; see ‘Parallel Cantos’.

13 On the centres of Purgatorio, see Charles S. Singleton, ‘The Poet’s Number at the Centre’, Modern Language Notes 80 (1965), 1-10; Arianna Punzi, ‘Centro e centri nella Commedia’, Anticomoderno 4 (1999), 73-89; Corrado Bologna, ‘Purgatorio XVII (Al centro del viaggio, il Vuoto)’, Studi danteschi 69 (2004), 1-22.

14 Augustine, De doctrina Christiana, lib. ii, c. 16, § 25, in Patrologia Latina, vol. 34, col. 48, where discussion of number symbolism in Scripture includes the number seven: ‘septenarius autem numerus creaturam indicat propter vitam et corpus’ [the number seven indicates the creature on account of life and the body].

15 See Macrobius, Commentarium in Somnium Scipionis, Comm. in Somn. Scip., lib. i, c. 6, §§ 45-82, ed. by J. Willis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1963), pp. 26-34, who refers to the significance of the number seven in relation to the world soul (§§ 45-46), seven spheres (§ 47), moon (§ 48), pregnancy (§ 62) and human life (§§ 67-75). See also Cristoforo Landino, Inf., iv. 97-108 ad loc., in Comento sopra la Comedia, ed. by Paolo Procaccioli, 4 vols (Rome: Salerno, 2001), i, 425: ‘Imperòché secondo e philosophi questo è perfetto numero (sc. seven). Ma prolixo sarebbe riferire tutte le argomentationi con le quali questo pruovano e pyctagorei et e platonici’.

16 On the role of the rhyme series, see Roberto Antonelli, ‘Tempo testuale e tempo rimico. Costruzione del testo e critica nella poesia rimata’, Critica del testo 1.1 (1998), 177-201; Arianna Punzi, Rimario della ‘Commedia’ di Dante Alighieri (Rome: Bagatto, 2001), pp. 13-52; Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘“Per similitudine di abito scientifico”: Dante, Cavalcanti and the Sources of Medieval “Philosophical” Poetry’, in Science and Literature in Italian Culture, ed. by Pierpaolo Antonello and Simon Gilson (Oxford: Legenda, 2004), pp. 14-52.

17 On these two rhyme sets, see respectively Lloyd Howard, Virgil the Blind Guide: Making the Way through the ‘Divine Comedy’ (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2010), pp. 23-26, 36-40; Mira Mocan, ‘Ulisse, Arnaut e Riccardo di San Vittore: convergenze figurali e richiami lessicali nella Commedia’, Lettere italiane 57:2 (2005), 173-208.

18 Charles S. Singleton, ‘The Vistas in Retrospect’, Modern Language Notes 81:1 (1966), 55-80.

19 Barański, ‘Structural Retrospection in Dante’s Comedy’.

20 In addition to note 16, see also Lloyd Howard, Formulas of Repetition in Dante’s ‘Commedia’: Signposted Journeys across Textual Space (Montreal: McGill University Press, 2001); Paolo Cherchi and Selene Sarteschi, ‘Il cielo del Sole: Per una lettura della Commedia a “lunghe campate”’, Critica del testo 14:2 (2011), 311-31, and Antonelli, ‘Come e perché’. Antonelli’s study is important for the stress it places on the importance of networks of correspondences linked to the art of memory.

21 See note 16.

22 See Martinez, The Divine Commedy: Purgatorio, pp. 124-25; Michelangelo Picone, ‘Purgatorio vii’, in Lectura Dantis Turicensis: Purgatorio, ed. by Georges Güntert and Michelangelo Picone (Florence: Cesati, 2001), esp. pp. 97-98. The recall is already found in part in Benvenuto da Imola; see Comentum super Dantis Aldigherij Comoediam, ed. by J. P. Lacaita, 5 vols (Florence: Barbèra, 1887), III, 204 (Purg., vii. 73-81 ad loc.). I am grateful to George Corbett for this reference.

23 See Robert Hollander, Dante and Paul’s Five Words with Understanding (Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992). For further discussion of the opening line(s) and bibliography, see Simon A. Gilson, ‘“Pape Satan, pape Satan aleppe!” (Inferno 7:1) in Dante’s commentators, 1322-1570’, in Nonsense and Other Senses: Regulated Absurdity in Literature, ed. by Elisabetta Tarantino (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2009), pp. 25-54.

24 On the degradation of language in the canto, see (in addition to Pluto) Inf., vii. 26: ‘grand’ urli’; ‘gridando’ [great cries; crying] (ll. 26, 30); ‘gridandosi anche loro ontoso metro’ [shouting at each other their shameful meter] (l. 33); ‘Assai la voce loro chiaro l’abbaia’ [Very clearly do their voices bay it out] (l. 43); ‘che sotto l’acqua è gente che sospira / e fanno pullular quest’acqua al summo’ [that under the water are people who are sighing, / making the water bubble at the surface] (ll. 118-19); ‘Quest’inno si gorgoliano ne la strozza / che dir nol posson con parola integra’ [This hymn / they gurgle in their throats, for they cannot fully / form the words] (ll. 125-26).

25 On ‘malacòth’, see Jerome’s preface to Vulgate; for the Hebrew words ‘Hosanna’ and ‘saboath’, see Matt. 21:9 and 1; James 5:4.

26 See esp. Steven Botterill, ‘Dante’s Poetics of the Sacred Word’, Philosophy and Literature 20:1 (1996), 54-62.

27 There is a conscious revocation here of style features and thematic patterning in the Vita nova: ‘dille’ and the emphasis on Beatrice’s name and dreaming. See also the canzone ‘Lo doloroso amor’, in particular ll. 8-9, 14-15, 27-28: ‘foco / che mi ha tratto di gioco [...] “Per quella moro c’ha nome Beatrice”. / Quel dolce nome, che mi fa il cor agro [...] dolce viso / a che niente pare lo paradiso’ [that fire which has drawn me away from happiness […] ‘Through her I die, whose name is Beatrice’. That sweet name which embitters my heart […] the sweet face to which Paradise seems nothing in comparison], translation from Dante’s Lyric Poetry, trans. by Kenelm Foster and Patrick Boyde, 2 vols (Oxford: Clarendon, 1967).

28 Note also the stars which circle around created matter (l. 138), and the ‘moto de le luci santi’ [the motion of the holy lights] (l. 141).

29 On bodily parts in Inferno vii, see lines 7 (‘labbia’ [face]), 27 (‘poppa’ [chests]), 47 (‘capo’ [heads]), 57 (‘pugno chiuso […] crin mozzi’ [closed fists […] hair cut short]), 69 (‘branche’ [clutches]), 112 (‘mano’ [hands]), 113 (‘con la testa e col petto e coi piedi’ [with head and breast and feet]), 114 (‘denti’ [teeth]), 125 (‘strozza’ [throats]). On the pronounced physiognomical interest in Purgatorio vii, see Christoper Kleinhenz, ‘A Nose for Art (Purgatorio vii): Notes on Dante’s Iconographical Sense’, Italica 52 (1975), 372-79.

30 On the dangers of vertical reading drawing attention to the obvious, see the discussion in Zygmunt G. Barański, ‘“Without any Violence”’, in this volume, and ‘Reading the Commedia’s IXs “Vertically”: From Addresses to the Reader to crucesignati and the Ecloga Theoduli’, L’Alighieri 42 (2014), 5-36. It might be interesting to work comparatively here, reflecting for heuristic purposes on the ways that episodes connect with other episodes in such works as Boccaccio’s Decameron (though here the symmetrical patterning and cult of number are in part Dantean concerns), but perhaps also works such as Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov, and À la recherche du temps perdu.

31 Consolation of Philosophy, III. vi. 13-18: ‘Quid genus est proavos strepitis? Si primordia vestra / Auctoremque deum spectes, nullus degener exstat / Ni vitiis peiora fovens proprium desertat ortum’ [why boast of your stock since none is counted base, if you consider God the author of your race, other than he who with foul vice deserts his own birth].

32 Consolation of Philosophy, III. ix. 5-7: ‘[…] verum insita summi / forma boni livore carens, tu cuncta spero / ducis ab exemplo, pulchrum pulcherrimus ipse’ [the indwelling form of the highest good free from envy: You drive all things from the eternal example: most beautiful]. But for Conches’ mediation, see Luca Lombardo, Boezio in Dante. La ‘Consolatio Philosophiae’ nello scrittoio del poeta (Venice: Edizioni Ca’ Foscari, 2014), p. 226, with reference to William of Conches, Glosae super Boethium, ed. by Lodi Nauta (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), p. 160: ‘Divina bonitas merito dicitur forma boni, quia ab eo omne bonum formatum est et habet esse’ [Divine goodness is rightly called the form of the good, for from it every good is formed and has its being].

33 In this respect, it may be worth recalling that some critics regard Virgil’s perspective in Purgatorio vii as indicating his limitation; see Margherita Frankel, ‘La similitudine della zara (Purg., vi. 1-12) e il rapporto fra Dante e Virgilio nell’Antipurgatorio’, in Studi americani su Dante, ed. by Gian Carlo Alessio and Robert Hollander (Milan: F. Angeli, 1989), pp. 113-44. On the Boethian echoes and their development between Inferno vii and Paradiso vii, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert: History and Allegory in the Divine Comedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979), pp. 319-28 (p. 326).