Category Archives: Italian Literature

Let Mortals Never Take a Vow in Jest: Dante Paradise Canto V and Catullus

Illustration of Beatrice explaining divine wisdom to Dante from the Mandelbaum translation.

No, I haven’t lost my mind, you read that title correctly. I wrote a post at this time last year discussing the similarities I noted between Catullus’s love poems and Dante’s Vita Nuova. As I was reading the final book in the Divine Comedy this afternoon, I was surprised to see in Canto V of Paradiso what I believe are some parallels, similarities, perhaps even influence from the Roman poet Catullus. In this Canto, Beatrice is instructing Dante about the seriousness of a vow—at first she is, of course, talking about religious vows and nuns and how they cannot be broken unless one makes a promise of something loftier. But the conversation, I think, moves into more general matters of faithfulness and agreements that anyone is capable of making over the course of his or her life. Beatrice tells Dante (trans. Mandelbaum):

Let mortals never take a vow in jest;
be faithful yet circumspect, not rash
as Jephthah was, in offering his first gift;
he should have said, ‘I did amiss,’ and not
done worse by keeping faith. And you can find
that same stupidity in the Greeks’ chief—
when her fair face made Iphigenia grieve
and made the wise and made the foolish weep
for her when they heard tell of such a rite.
Christians, proceed with greater gravity:
do not be like a feather at each wind,
nor think that all immersions wash you clean.

Even I was surprised when reading this Canto to have thoughts about Catullus flash across my mind. In Carmen 76 and 70 Catullus is admonishing his former lover Clodia (Lesbia) for holding out vows and promises to him which, in the end, she could not keep. Catullus uses the language of vows, pleasure, faith, wind and water to describe his staying faithful to a promise of love and companionship and Clodia’s breaking of those same promises. It is also evident that the words Catullus uses in his poems have religious, spiritual and legal connotations. Poem 76 begins (Latin translations are my own):

If there is any pleasure for a man in remembering previous good deeds, when he knows for a fact that he has been dutiful, and that he has not violated a sacred vow, and that he has never, in any agreement, abused the gods for the purpose of deceiving his fellow man, then many joys remain for you throughout your long life, Catullus, even though these joys have resulted from a thankless love.

And in poem 70 Catullus writes:

My woman says that she prefers to marry no other man over me, not even if Jupiter himself were to ask for her hand in marriage. She says this: but what a woman promises to an eager lover should be written on the winds or the swift flowing rivers.

As I mentioned above, Latin words like pius (dutiful, pius), fides (promise, vow), foedere (agreement, contract) all have religious connotations. Catullus takes the vow he has made to his beloved as seriously as if it were a religious or a legal contract. And we can likewise view the passage from Dante as not only bearing religious meanings, but also romantic ones—especially since the words are spoken between Dante and Beatrice. It also struck me that the example of a broken vow that Dante uses is that of Iphigenia who was promised by her father, Agamemnon, a wedding but instead was sacrificed at the altar of Artemis—a myth with both religious and marital references. I haven’t been able to find a reference or footnote in any of the Dante commentaries about Catullus. But can you see, fellow readers, why Dante reminded of these carefully composed elegiac meters from Catullus?

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A Sense of Expectation and Agonizing Impatience: Some Thoughts on Dante’s Purgatory

Aeneas and the Shade of Creusa. Giuseppe Maria Mitelli. 1663. Engraving

Osip Mandelstam’s essay on the Divine Comedy, “Conversation about Dante” is a magnificent work of art in and of itself.  The Russian poet uses the most sublime language to describe the complexities of Dante’s poetic speech,  rhythm and structure; he compares various parts of the Divine Comedy to the intricate workings of a beehive, the elaborate geological structure of granite and marble, and the rich timbre of a cello:

Dante’s cantos are scores for a special chemical orchestra in which, for the external ear, the most easily discernible comparisons are those identical with the outbursts, and the solo roles, that is, the arias and ariosos, are varieties of self-confessions, self-flagellations, or autobiographies, sometimes brief and compact, sometimes lapidary, like a tombstone inscription: sometimes extended like a testimonial from a medieval university; sometimes powerfully developed, articulated and reaching a dramatic operatic maturity, for example, Francesca’s famous cantilena.

The density of the cello timbre is best suited to convey a sense of expectation and of agonizing impatience.  There exists no power on earth which could hasten the movement of honey flowing from a tilted glass jar.  Therefore the cello would come about and be given form only when the European analysis of time had made sufficient progress, when the thoughtless sundial had been transcended and the one-time observer of the shade stick moving across Roman numerals on the sand had been transformed into a passionate participant of a differential torture and into a martyr of the infinitesimal.  A cello delays sound, hurry how it may.  Ask Brahms—he knows it.  Ask Dante—he has heard it.

Mandelstam uses Inferno, Canto XXXIII and the description of the death of Ugolino and his sons by starvation at the hands of Archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa to prove his point about music and the cello.  But the scene in Purgatory, Canto II, of Dante’s attempted embrace of his beloved friend Cascella is, to me, equally “encased in a cello timbre, dense and heavy…”: (trans. Robin Kirkpatrick)

And one drew forward now, I saw to me
to take me in his arms with such great warmth
it moved me, so I did the same to him.
Ah shadows, empty save in how they look!
Three times I locked my hands behind his back
As many times I came back to my breast.
Wonder, I think was painted over me.
At which the shadow smiled, and so drew back,
while I, pursuing him, pressed further on.

Any good commentary will explain that these lines are an allusion to Aeneid 6 where Aeneas has traveled to the Underworld and sees and tries to embrace the spirit of his beloved father, Anchises: (All translations of Latin and Ancient Greek are my own)

Aeneas speaks to his father: “You, oh father, and the sad image of your spirit appearing to me so often are what drove me to seek out these thresholds. My ships wait on the Tyrrhenian sea. Allow me to grasp your hand, father, allow me father, and do not shrink away from my embrace. Speaking thus his face was soaked with large tears. Three times he tries to embrace his father’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escapes his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.

As I was reading this Canto, however, what came to my mind, before the scene with Anchises, was a similar encounter earlier in the Aeneid between Aeneas and his lost wife Creusa in Book 2.  For me this double allusion increases the pathos of the futile attempts at embrace that occur in the Roman underworld and in Dante’s Purgatory.  As he is trying to escape Troy that is burning down around him, Aeneas loses his wife and tries to go back to the city to save her.  But he only finds Creusa’s spirit whose parting words to him are to continue loving their son and as a final gesture Aeneas tries to embrace her.  The lines in Latin are exactly the same as those in Aeneid 6:  “Three times he tries to embrace his wife’s neck with his arms; but three times the shade, grasped in vain, escaped his hands, similar to light winds or a winged dream.  The additional knowledge of the exchange between Aeneas and Creusa (it’s a shame that most commentaries don’t mention it)  makes a greater emotional impact when reading Dante’s reunion with Cascella and creates what Mandelstam describes as “a sense of expectation and agonizing impatience.”

The volucri somno—winged dream—is specifically Homeric and is Vergil’s allusion to Odysseus’s encounter with his mother in the underworld of the Odyssey.  Mandelstam’s concept of that delay of sound as applied to the Divine Comedy seems especially appropriate for these images of shades that reach back to Homer.  Homer and Ancient Greek were not available to Dante so it is only later generations of readers of Purgatory that truly hear the echoes from Book 11 of the Odyssey as Odysseus describes his attempts to embrace his mother, Anticleia:

After she spoke to me I was anxiously wishing to embrace the soul of my mother.  Three times my soul stirred me to embrace her, and I approached her, but three times she escaped from my hands like a shadow or a dream.  And the pain in my heart became even sharper to me.

The number three is often used in Ancient epics but I have always found it particularly fitting for this trope—three embraces are the perfect amount before a person becomes fully and painfully aware of loss and grief.  Any fewer than three would lessen the agony of each of these scenes and any more would make them melodramatic and overwrought.   The first is a naïve attempt to reach out and touch the person that was, in life, so important; the second attempt highlights a sense of denial and disbelief of the loss; the third and final attempt and failure to embrace brings about the painful reality of a physical absence.  This seems like a fitting metaphor for the grief one experiences with death or with any other loss we go through in life.  Cue the heavy, slow music of the cello…

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To Reach the Opposite Side of the Shore: Dante’s Inferno

Dante’s Inferno Canto 3 lines 107-108, drawn by Gustave_Doré 1861-1865

Reading Eliot’s Daniel Deronda recently has inspired me to do a complete reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy which she brilliantly alludes to in her novel. It has been far too many years since I have looked at any part of that Italian masterpiece and I felt I ought to revisit it. I had three immediate, intense reactions to the first few Cantos of The Inferno, in Robert Kirkpatick’s translation, which I will share here. There is nothing new or earthshattering in my thoughts, these are simply my gut, instinct reactions to a text which I have come back to after many years.

First—how can I even put this–*Vergil. Yes, Vergil. I knew he was lurking everywhere in The Inferno but when I was younger and less experienced in translating The Aeneid I had no real appreciation for Dante’s reworking of and allusions to that Roman poet and his Epic. As I was slowly making my way through the Cantos, I kept thinking that—and I truly do not mean to offend with this statement—it is just not possible to have a deep appreciation for Dante without reading The Aeneid, or at least reading Books 1, 4 and especially 6 of The Aeneid. I highly recommend the Fagles, Fitzgerald or Ferry translations; or better yet, find a friend, neighbor, colleague, long lost family member or a lover who knows Latin and make them translate it for you from the original. Trust me—it will enhance your admiration for and understanding of the Divine Comedy like nothing else.

Secondly, as Vergil is showing Dante around the place before they get to the circles of Hell proper, they come upon a kind of limbo in which all of the important ancient authors dwell. This is Vergil’s own resting place (if you can call it that) and Dante specifically points out four other names he thinks are worthy of Vergil’s company: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Yes, Lucan! I think that when I read The Inferno for the first time that I had no idea who Lucan was. But now that I am older and more experienced (certainly not wiser, just more experienced) his named jumped out at me and gave me such joy to see. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a serious soft spot for Silver Age writing, especially Seneca and Lucan. I don’t think it’s necessary to read Lucan’s De Bello Civile to understand Dante’s references to this Roman epic, but I encourage you to read this masterpiece anyway. Dante has inspired me to pick up my Latin texts of Lucan and translate my favorite sections once again. More on Lucan in another post…

Finally, I was moved by Dante’s reworking of one of my favorite passages in Aeneid Book 6. When souls are lined up on the shores of the Styx, waiting for Charon to take them to their final resting place, Vergil describes them as a countless mob, desperate to reach the other side of the river where either the Elysian fields or Tartarus awaits them (3.305-312-translation is my own):

Here this entire, sprawling mob was rushing to the riverbanks—mothers and men and the bodies of great heroes devoid of any life, boys and unmarried girls, and young men placed on the funeral pyre before the very eyes of their parents: the number of souls standing there can be compared to the vast number of leaves in a forest, sliding from their places during the first frost of autumn, that fall to the ground; or to the many flocks of birds that are gathered on the land from the deep ocean, when the cold part of the season drives them across the sea and sends them to warmer climates. These souls stand there praying to be the first to make the crossing and stretching out their hands in great desire to reach the opposite side of the shore.

In Vergil’s underworld, however, an incalculable number of these souls will not be allowed to make the journey across the Styx and are doomed to roam about in a type of limbo; those whose bodies were never properly buried and any person that has committed suicide must tragically accept this fate of nothingness. Dante applies Vergil’s metaphor to his version of Hell in Canto 3 as Charon, too, is waiting to bring across a vast number of souls onto his raft to cross a black swamp. What I found chilling and brilliant and fascinating about Dante’s version is that these souls will all make it across, eventually, but this immense number of spirits are waiting to gain their entrance into The Inferno; this is not limbo, this is not a state of nothingness, this is a place where countless souls are waiting to enter into a state of pain, and suffering, pure Hell (106-118):

And then they came together all as one,
wailing aloud along the evil margin
that waits for all who have no fear of God.
Charon, the demon, with his coal-hot eyes,
glared what he meant to do. He swept all in.
He struck at any dawdler with his oar.
In autumn, leaves are lifted, one by one,
away until the branch looks down and sees
its tatters all arrayed upon the ground.
In that same way did Adam’s evil seed
hurtle, in sequence, from the river rim,
as bird’s that answer to their handler’s call.
They off they went, to cross the darkened flood.

I will conclude with a quote by George Steiner who says in his book Real Presences about the tradition of these epic masterpieces: “Virgil reads, guides our reading of, Homer as no external critic can. The Divine Comedy is a reading of The Aeneid, technically and spiritually ‘at home’, ‘authorized’ in the several and interactive senses of that word, as no extrinsic commentary by one who is himself not a poet can be.” Nothing has enhanced my reading of and awe for Vergil more, in recent memory anyway, than making my way slowly through the Divine Comedy.

*The Roman poet’s full name is Publius Vergilius Maro, so this name in English his name becomes Vergil. Gilbert Highet in The Classical Tradition, discusses the popularly of the misspelling, Virgil, which began early, possibly as the result of Vergil’s nickname Parthenias which was based on the poet’s sexual restraint. In the Middle Ages, the name Virgil was thought to refer to his magical (as in the virga magic wand) powers. For whatever reason, Virgil seems to be the popular way of spelling his name even today but I only use the original spelling of Vergil. I put this note here to stop anyone from correcting me on the spelling of his name which irks me to no end. I mean, come on. How can a classicist be accused of misspelling the name of one of antiquity’s most important authors! (It’s happened more times than I care to discuss.)

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Doing Well What Men Do: Artemisia by Anna Banti

Judith Slaying Holofernes. Artemisia Gentileschi. 1620.

Susan Sontag, in her introduction to Banti’s Artemisia which is translated by Shirley D’Ardia Caracciolo, writes:

Aptly enough, the name Artemisia is associated with female assertiveness, with women doing well what men do.  In Greek mythology, Artemis—Artemisia means follower of Artemis—is the goddess of the hunt.  In history—Herodotus’s great History, which recounts the attempt of the Persian empire to conquer the tiny, independent Greek city-states on the northwest edge of Xerxes’s vast domains—it is the name of a queen and military leader: Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a Greek city in Ionia, who joined the Persians and was put in command by Xerxes of five of his ships.

As vocations go, a Greek queen commanding a Persian naval squadron is only slightly more improbable than a seventeenth-century Italian woman becoming a much sought after professional painter of large narrative compositions with Biblical or classical subjects—many of which depict women’s rage and women’s victimization.

Instead of choosing to focus on Artemisia’s assault and embarrassing public trial and torture,  Banti chooses other episodes in the painter’s life that display her assertiveness and her “doing well what men do.”  This is not a traditional, linear narrative with a clean plot; Banti is having a conversation with her protagonist and chooses to recreate scenes in her life that show her independence and resilience.  For example, there is a long description of Artemisia’s time in Florence where she works on her Judith Slaying Holofernes masterpiece.  As she is painting, five Florentine society women watch her and gossip; the contrast between these silly onlookers and the artist is highlighted in Banti’s text:

She who used to be so shy if her brother even looked at a drawing of hers, had grown accustomed to the remarks these women made and to their lack of discretion with an indifference that did not even surprise her.  And sometimes, getting hurriedly to her feel and going resolutely over to the model to arrange him in a position more in keeping with her purpose, it would happen that she might trample the hem of a dress, or bump into a curved shoulder without apologizing, so little did their presence count for her.

Her painting is triumphantly presented to the Grand Duke, but, despite her growing fame, she travels back to Rome where her husband is living.  For a very brief time she is content living with Antonio, a humble, hardworking man who is kind, gentle, and loving to her.  But when she is given an apartment and is commissioned for a series of paintings for the upper classes of Rome, she rebukes him for not fitting into her new society.  This is one of the saddest parts of the story because Artemisia chooses her work over her husband who feels that he has no choice but to leave her.  For the rest of her life she is haunted by the happiness she once felt for him and wonders if she made the correct decision.

A large part of the narrative at the end of the book is taken up with her voyage by ship to London where she will live with her father at the court of the Queen.  She is scared to travel so far all alone, but once again asserts her independence and her assertiveness. The journey is a fitting scene that reflects the entirety of her itinerant life and her struggle to be accepted by her friends, family and her husband.  As the ship sways and rocks her into a state of solitary reflection she thinks to herself:

She contrived then to call to mind all her own faults: how she used to remain stubbornly silent at her husband’s attentions; how, confident of his devotion, she would bask in it without care, almost without really enjoying it, believing herself to be free, owing him nothing in return.  And how she used to reproach him for his lowly station, his wretched job, his moodiness.  And how that last time, when she had been angry, she should have realized how afraid he was of her.  He had left: but she had been sure of his love….The untouchable, external object blocks her investigation at this point, taking over as though alive.  The tears gushed forth once more, dried by the salty wind.

It is so sad and tragic that Artemisia had to choose between her art and her love.  I feel like I could read this book many times over and find different scenes in it to grab my attention. It is a difficult book to write about but would make for a very interesting discussion.  I would love to hear other opinions of the book.  What scenes stood out to you?  What themes/motifs do you remember from Banti’s narrative?

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My Pilgrimage from Dante to Catullus to Sappho

The fifth chapter of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage  describes Miriam attending a Dante lecture. As I was reading  Interim I remembered that I had bought a copy of Vita Nuova translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti that was reissued by the NYRB poets series in 2011.  And from Dante I was led to Catullus and then to Sappho.  I am sure that entire dissertations have been written about this topic, but here are my scattered thoughts anyway.

When reading Dante’s Vita Nuova, a comparison between the Italian poet and Catullus immediately comes to mind.  Some of the similarities are so basic and superficial that they can be considered coincidences.  Both poets, for instance, humbly call their collections a “little book” (libello in Italian and libellus in Latin.)  The poetry of both men is deeply personal and autobiographical, although specific details such as dates for events are difficult to glean from their writings.   The Italian and the Roman, both of whom were upper class, wealthy citizens, each fall in love with a woman that is inaccessible and married to another man—Beatrice is for Dante what Clodia (Lesbia) is for Catullus.  And finally, both men are the novi poetae of their respective generations, breaking free from the traditional conventions of their craft (Catullus rejects epic in favor of short, personal poetry; Dante writes in Italian instead of Latin.)

Beginning from the age of nine, Dante writes about each of his encounters with his beloved Beatrice.  On one such occasion, a gathering to celebrate a wedding (some believe it is Beatrice’s own wedding), he sees her with a group of other young women and he is struck dumb by the sight of her.  The loss of all of his senses  is described in a sonnet that was written about this chance meeting with her:

Even as the others mock, thou mockest me;
Not dreaming, noble lady, whence it is
That I am taken with strange semblances,
Seeing thy face which is so fair to see:
For else, compassion would not suffer thee
To grieve my heart with such harsh scoffs as these.
Lo! Love, when thou art present, sits at ease,
And bears his mastership so mightily,
That all my troubled senses he thrusts out,
Sorely tormenting some, and slaying some,
Till none but he is left and has free range
To gaze on thee. This makes my face to change
Into another’s; while I stand all dumb,
And hear my senses clamour in their rout.

The last five lines are similar enough to Catullus Poem #51 to suspect a case of intertextuality. Many scholars have speculated that this poem captures Catullus’ first encounter with Clodia who is sitting with another man at a party while the poet looks on (translation is my own):

This situation steals away all of my senses,
I who am so wretched; For as soon as I looked at you, Lesbia,
nothing else exists for me. But my tongue swells up,
a thin flame simmers beneath my limbs,
my ears are ringing, and darkness covers
both of my eyes.

Catullus 51 is the Roman poet’s translation of Sappho #31 in which poem she is similarly frozen while beholding her lover. Some scholars have speculated that Sappho sees the object of her desire at a wedding, which is an interesting parallel with the setting of Dante’s sonnet (translation is my own):

When I look at you, even for a short time,
I am no longer able to speak.

But my tongue breaks,
and at once a small fire assails me under my skin
my eyes do not see and my ears are ringing.

I am contemplating another reread of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I have Dorothy Richardson to thank for rekindling my interest in the Italian poet and bringing me back to some of my favorite poems from Catullus and Sappho.

For the extra curious here are links to the original languages: Catullus, Sappho, Dante

And here is an abstract of an excellent article about Dante’s influence in Pilgrimage: https://www.research.manchester.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/dantes-pilgrimage-in-dorothy-richardson(6bff1f93-85f3-4b23-99a1-05ddfef79ef4).html

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