The Medieval Review 11.05.20

Verdicchio, Massimo. The Poetics of Dante's Paradiso. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010. Pp. 177. $45 ISBN 978-1-4426-4119-8. .

Reviewed by:

Rachel Jacoff
Wellesley College

It is a rare experience to read a book on Dante's Commedia that is resolutely oblivious to all the work done on the poem in the past few decades. There are numerous citations of Verdicchio's own earlier book, Reading Dante Reading: A Postmodern Reading of Dante's Commedia and occasional parenthetical asides to the commentaries of Sapegno and Singleton, but this book does not engage with any of the recent work that has profoundly enriched Dante studies both in this country and in Italy. There are virtually no footnotes and no bibliography. The chutzpah of a book whose title makes a major claim to be taken seriously and then proceeds without allusion to the important insights of others is disquieting. Although Verdicchio makes passing reference to "the work done by present-day Dante scholarship, which my research implicitly takes into account, and without which I could not have written this book" (5), there is actually no sense of dialogue with contemporary Dante scholarship. He is correct that "no work...has ever approached the cantica quite from the same critical perspective that I present here" (5). This is an idiosyncratic book in many ways.

Verdicchio begins with two "Prologue" chapters that recapitulate the conclusions of his previous book in which, one gathers, the allegorical Veltro of Inferno 1.101 is to be equated with the Commedia itself, and the allegorical DXV prophesied in Purgatorio 33.43 is to be understood as figuring Dante himself who has been selected to offer a critique of both Church and Empire that will take place in Paradiso. "As DXV and Veltro, Dante becomes the self-appointed instrument of Divine Justice, who, unlike the biased justice of the false and lying Roman gods (dei falsi e bugiardi) or Virgil's own biased poetic justice in the Aeneid, is able to fulfill his poetic mandate before God" (11).

Each of the ten chapters that follow the two Prologues treats one of the ten heavens that structure Dante's ptolemaic cosmos. Verdicchio takes as a key to their meaning the connection Dante makes in the second book of the Convivio between each of the seven planetary heavens and the seven Arts and Sciences of the Trivium and Quadrivium (Grammar, Dialectics, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy); the three subsequent heavens correspond with Physics and Metaphysics (Fixed Stars), Moral Philosophy (Primum Mobile) and Theology (Empyrean). "The relation between the episodes and the corresponding heavens and sciences is not casual, as is often thought, but provides a key to how the cantos should be read" (4). Thus, each chapter begins with the relevant quotation from the Convivio and attempts to connect it with the issues raised by the heaven discussed. These connections are often arbitrary and rarely seem to offer the keys to meaning that are asserted. Verdicchio sees greater continuity between the Convivio and the Commedia than most contemporary commentators do. Perhaps this is because his earlier book asserts, amazingly, that the Beatrice of the Commedia is really "a poetic figure for the 'donna gentile,' or philosophy, that is, the figure of Dante's allegorical poetry whose true essence is poetic wisdom" (163).

In each chapter Verdicchio interprets the passage from the Convivio as a clue to the hidden flaws of the blessed personae who appear in the given sphere. Because Dante himself alludes to those flaws in the case of the souls in the first three spheres which are within the reach of the earth's shadow and who were, in life, slightly flawed in different ways, one is not shocked to think about the blessed as less than perfect. But these souls are now in the presence of God and the beatific vision; their flaws are a thing of the past about which they can reflect without guilt or sorrow. For Verdicchio they are still flawed, and, worse still, busily hiding or masking their prior defects as do many of the sinners Dante portrays ironically in the Inferno. (One wonders what the purpose of purgation was.) Dante thinks the emperor Justinian is important enough to make him the only character in the whole poem who speaks for an entire canto, but for Verdicchio he is a sophistic concealer of an unpleasant past that includes his continued heretical belief in Christ's single and divine nature as well as his mistreatment of his general, Belisarius. At the close of this chapter Verdicchio uses the word "reincarnation" to refer to the Incarnation, a puzzling use of terminology.

The ironic and critical reading of Justinian is mild compared to the attack Verdicchio discovers in Dante's portrayal of St. Francis and St. Dominic and their followers. Again, Dante himself is critical of the degeneration of the two orders, but, in everyone's view except Verdicchio's, he is writing hagiography about Francis and Dominic. In the circle of Mars, Dante encounters his possibly mythical great-great grandfather, Cacciaguida. Verdicchio reads Cacciaguida's speech about the "sober and chaste" Florence of his own time as a lie. When Cacciaguida speaks of being born into a city "so peaceful and so fair, to a community so loyal, to so sweet a dwelling place..." (15, 13-32), Verdicchio tells us that "Dante means, on the contrary, that Cacciaguida was born in a troubled and bleak time, among a citizenry that could not be trusted, and in a city that was really a viper's nest" (90). Throughout this chapter meaning is consistently reversed. The reader, we are told, must "read 'obliquely' between the lines to go to the root of Dante's argument which is never apparent at first" (107). Cacciaguida, rather than being Dante's beloved ancestor, is a deceitful character with a "shady past" (107).

Reading the discourse of the souls who make up the Eagle in the sphere of Jupiter, Verdicchio sees it as an indictment of the idea of Empire or Monarchy, a critique of Dante's position in Monarchia, and, therefore, a conclusive argument for the early dating of that work.

"The Heaven of Jupiter, which concludes the 'infamous' story of the Eagle as a critique of monarchs and monarchy, is a far cry from what Dante envisaged to be the role and mandate of the monarch in his Monarchia. These cantos denounce the utopian ideals of the former treatise and the fiction of a just ruler whose divine mandate is to be the figurehead of both State and mankind. Here, as elsewhere in Dante's work, the irony is also on the poet and on the illusions he entertained for himself and others, on the role of Monarchy and of the Monarchs of his time" (115).

Given the most recent discussion of the dating of Dante's treatise and its allusion to Paradiso that most commentators see as an argument for its late date, this is a suspect assertion. Dante was critical of the rulers of his time, but that doesn't mean that he didn't also repeatedly argue for the necessity of a good ruler in a number of places in the Commedia. Verdicchio claims the early dating of Monarchia elsewhere (155), once again without addressing any of the issues that others have found significant when dealing with the question of the treatise's dating.

The pattern of reading against obvious meaning persists throughout the book. Dante describes a number of the luminous blessed as nested in or hidden by their own light, a light that is a sign of their beatitude. For Verdicchio, "whenever the soul is introduced as hidden, it means that it has something to hide. Furthermore, the use of 'Io veggio ben' [I see well or I understand] always signals Dante's irony since it implies that, on the contrary, he does not understand and there is more to the issue than meets the eye" (118). This insistence on reading against clear statements brings to mind a passage (Par. 13. 128-29) that Verdicchio himself quotes (73) where St. Thomas criticizes the early heretics for reading Scripture to say the opposite of what it actually said. Dante's irony is never as blatant as Verdicchio makes it out to be; it took a long time for readers to understand infernal irony, and even now there are debates about how to think about figures like Francesca da Rimini, Farinata, and Ulysses. Verdicchio's "unmasking" of the beatified souls of Paradiso is simplistic, and it becomes tedious as it is repeated in chapter after chapter. In the Heaven of the Fixed Stars the apostles Peter, James, and John turn out to be the opposite of the virtues they are customarily thought to represent as they examine Dante on Faith, Hope, and Charity. "Rather than showing that St. Peter, St. James, and St. John possess knowledge of these virtues, Dante denounces their shortcomings precisely in these virtues, and far from being the one who is being examined, he teaches the wisdom of how to read ironically" (145).

Verdicchio's use of the word "allegory" does not correspond to the way it is customarily used. For him reading allegorically is a form of demystification. He concludes, "In the Paradiso this critical act of demystification is associated with 'ridere' [smiling], that is with the comical or with irony, which defines this cantica of Paradiso, just as it does the rest of the Commedia as an allegory of irony" (173). We hear much about an "allegory of irony." The only irony that is clear to me after working my way through this confusing book is the presence of a particularly unsmiling, grim image of Dante on its cover.