Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
13.04.05, Marchesi, Dante and Augustine

13.04.05, Marchesi, Dante and Augustine

Simone Marchesi's Dante and Augustine: Linguistics, Poetics, Hermeneutics is an important work, offering a substantial contribution to vital debates in Dante studies and, beyond this, opening up rich perspectives for the exploration of broader questions concerning the relationship between two crucial figures for our understanding of the Medieval world. Indeed, methodologically speaking, Marchesi's book is firmly and expertly rooted within the parameters and traditions of Dante scholarship. At the same time, it is creatively and engagingly written, in such a way as to be fruitfully accessible to readers beyond a specifically Dantean area of interest. Addressing fundamental questions concerning what it means to write and to read in pursuit of truth, and doing so through reflection on the work of two of the most important authors in the Western tradition, Dante and Augustine will offer productive avenues of thought for all readers interested in Medieval conceptions of the composition and interpretation of texts.

Within the realm of Dante studies, Marchesi's work is to be welcomed as a timely contribution to both of the strands of scholarship into which it consciously inserts itself: "on the one side, the investigations into the internal articulation and theoretical foundations of Dante's meta-poetic thinking and, on the other, the studies of Augustine's influence on Dante's praxis as a poet" (3). By setting up a conversation between Dante and Augustine on meta-poetic questions, Marchesi is able to bring these two strands of scholarship together and enrich both: on the one hand, by suggesting just how important it might be to consider Augustine a primary interlocutor in our examination of Dante's authorial strategies; on the other hand, by suggesting just how important it might be to consider the meta-poetic one of the primary spheres of Dante's thought to bear an Augustinian influence. In this respect, one should perhaps first note one of the main conclusions to which Marchesi's argument is directed, as simple as it is compelling: that our understanding of the meta-poetic dimension of Dante's oeuvre can be deepened in the light of Augustine's regula caritatis, "the hermeneutic principle according to which the essential message (and the final criterion for the interpretation) of God's Word is the construction in the reader of the double love for God and neighbour" (137). It will perhaps strike readers as relatively unsurprising that reflection on the relationship between Dante and Augustine should culminate on such a central Augustinian notion. It might, by the same token, appear surprising to readers outside the realm of Dante studies that this is not already a well- trodden scholarly path. It is, indeed, one of the great merits of Marchesi's book that it is able in original ways substantially to integrate this particular area of exploration into Dantean debates.

It is in Chapter 3 ("Hermeneutics") that Marchesi explores possible connections between Dante's work and Augustine's regula caritatis. Focusing in particular on Purgatorio 22, and the relationship traced therein between Statius' salvation and the writings of Virgil, Marchesi argues in this chapter that in the Commedia Dante departs from hermeneutical practices espoused in his earlier works, whereby authorial intention was the primary arbiter of meaning and the ideal goal of readerly interpretation. In the Commedia, Marchesi argues, Dante privileges a hermeneutic model whereby the meaning and salvific power of a text are seen to transcend authorial intention and to be rooted in the divine; and whereby, correspondingly, the ideal goal of readerly activity is seen as the awakening and cultivation in oneself of divine love.

Such a reading of Dante's hermeneutics is prepared for, in Chapter 2 ("Poetics"), through reflection on the difference between Dante's approach to Scripture in the Commedia as opposed to in the pre-Commedia works; a difference in approach that, Marchesi argues, can be seen to mirror Augustine's own trajectory from his suspicion to his full embracing of the style and language of the Bible. In the pre-Commedia works, Dante's explicit statements of poetics reveal a firm distinction between form and content: the two are discrete and separable, discretive mixta. Accompanying this is a general indifference to the value of Scripture as poetry. By contrast, in the Commedia Scripture is embraced as poetry, and form and content are no longer seen as discrete and separable. This, in turn, gives Dante the possibility of developing a Christian, comic poetics that is also a poetics of inspiration, and that therefore boldly opens up the possibility for vernacular poetry to embody and disseminate Scripture's own salvific potential.

Underlying the possibility of such readings is the analysis of "Linguistics" offered by Marchesi in Chapter 1. Here Marchesi traces a contrast, itself reflecting diverse Augustinian perspectives, between the Vita nuova and the Commedia on the one hand, and the De vulgari eloquentia and the Convivio on the other. In the mid-career works, Marchesi shows, Dante privileges an approach to poetic language in which its aim is seen primarily as that of conveying to the reader its author's concepts. On this understanding (and to borrow the terms of Chapter 2), form and content are seen as discrete, the former subordinated to the latter, its task being the instrumental one of conveying to readers the conceptual content intended by the author. In the Vita nuova and the Commedia, by contrast, Dante is seen to privilege what Marchesi refers to as the "expressive" as opposed to the "semiotic" function of poetic language. On this understanding, form and content are inextricably one. Poetic form is no longer seen as a somewhat "distracting and distorting veil for truth" but, on the model of the Incarnation, "the only suitable vehicle for it" (13), one that can genuinely be open to the ineffable and to the experience of the transcendent. As far as the Commedia is concerned, this can be revealed through close reading of the different meanings of Dante's use of the word "concetto" (concept/conceived), which Marchesi illuminates with great insight and sophistication.

Ending the book, in Chapter 4, are "Augustine in Dante: Three Readings" which, building on the insights offered in previous chapters, further enrich the book by revealing just how complex Dante's relationship with Augustine might be seen to be in the Commedia. The three readings are all centered on Virgil and on Dante's relationship, through Virgil, with the Classical world. They explore, respectively: the theme of Empire as associated with the figure of Cato in the Commedia (through close reading especially of Inferno 13); the relationship between eros and poetry as associated with the figure of Dido (through close reading especially of Purgatorio 30); the theme of resurrection as associated with Aeneid 6 as an intertext for the Commedia (with close reading especially of Paradiso 31). What is revealed, in particular, is that while in his constructive and productive relationship to Classical literature, thought and politics Dante can be seen to move beyond the rather more negative estimation that Augustine presents of these in his works, he does so, in significant measure, in and through ways of reading and of understanding truth that Augustine himself had argued for and espoused.

It should be noted that, very fruitfully, Marchesi does not in his book attempt to trace precise textual influences of Augustine on Dante. This would be restrictive, given the aim of the book is that of focusing, theoretically, on the various strands of Dante's thinking on language, poetry and interpretation. Rather, Marchesi aims to show where important areas of overlap lie and therefore where important points of contact between the two authors might legitimately be thought to be, especially given the prominence of Augustine and Augustinian modes of thought in the culture of Dante's day. This way of proceeding allows for an illuminating encounter on questions of great importance between two central authors in the Western tradition.

Consistently with the book's aims, moreover, Marchesi privileges reflection on those moments in Dante's and Augustine's works where questions of linguistics, poetics and hermeneutics are explicitly addressed by their authors. There is consequently in this sense more attention throughout on these authors' theory than there is on their practice. Given the book's particular focus, there is also a privileging of literary modes of thought over those metaphysical and theological modes of thought with which the questions addressed by Marchesi naturally intersect. The latter thus remain, relatively speaking, underexplored. These should of course not be seen as limitations of Marchesi's work but rather as possibilities for analysis that Marchesi's book points us to and offers us invaluable tools for engaging with.

Two further questions that Dante and Augustine indirectly and implicitly raises for its readers concern, respectively, the relationship between the Commedia and Dante's other works, and the figure of Virgil in the Commedia. To what extent and in what ways could the distinctions made by Marchesi concerning the differences between the Commedia and the pre-Commedia writings be further enriched by examining in more detail the possible presence in the pre-Commedia writings of those perspectives attributed by Marchesi to the Commedia? For instance, what in connection to Marchesi's arguments are the implications of the strong emphasis on ineffability at the end of Book 3 of the Convivio? Moreover, to what extent and in what ways could the reading offered by Marchesi of Dante's Virgil as read in the light of Dante's relationship with Augustine open up the possibility for a reconsideration of the question of Dante's ultimate estimation of the Roman poet? If, as Marchesi argues, the salvific potential of Virgilian poetics is still informing the poetics of the Commedia right into the cantos of the Empyrean, then Dante's appreciation of Virgil would seem to go further than Statius': Statius tells us he is saved by the content of Virgil's poetry; Dante highlights the salvific potential of its form too. We tend to assume that when Virgil disappears in Purgatorio 30 he goes back to Limbo. As maker of poetry, however, his presence is still palpably and positively felt right into the realm of the divine. In assuming categorically that Dante the author intends for Virgil the character to go back to Limbo after he disappears in Purgatorio 30, are we failing to be as open-minded regarding the mystery of salvation as the hermeneutics of the Commedia, which prioritizes the ineffable work of the Spirit over human understanding, would require us to be?

It is indeed another of the great merits of Marchesi's book that it can invite us, in and through arguments and readings that are as compelling as they are important, to consider anew, even beyond its stated intentions, fundamental questions concerning Dante's intellectual development and his understanding of the relationship between the human and the divine. That said, a final, open-ended question that might provocatively be raised concerns the implications of Marchesi's conclusions regarding the hermeneutics of the Commedia for our understanding of our work as critics. For the Dante of the Commedia, interpretation ought to be "semiologically creative rather than philologically respectful: a reading is not good because it recovers the literal meaning of a text, fixating on the passive reproduction of authorial intention; a reading is good because it improves the reader and his chances of achieving salvation" (129). In what ways and to what extent ought this kind of perspective inform our interpretive endeavors?