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The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise

The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise

by Jeffrey Thompson Schnapp

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By examining the links between the planet Mars and the cross in the Heaven of the Warriors, Jeffrey Schnapp explores Dante' Christian rewriting of Virgil's 'Aeneid' and Cicerno's 'Republic' at the center of the Comedy's final canticle.


By examining the links between the planet Mars and the cross in the Heaven of the Warriors, Jeffrey Schnapp explores Dante' Christian rewriting of Virgil's 'Aeneid' and Cicerno's 'Republic' at the center of the Comedy's final canticle.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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9.90(w) x 6.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise

By Jeffrey T. Schnapp


Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06679-0



Medium enim, cum amissum est in circulo, inveniri non potest nisi per duas lineas se orthogonaliter intersectantes.

BONAVENTURE, Collationes in Haxaemeron 1.24.


Approaching the periphery of Dante's limbo, Virgil has occasion to recall to memory an event which dramatically altered the landscape of Hell:

... Io era nuovo in questo stato,
quando ci vidi venire un possente,
con segno di vittoria coronato. Inf. 4.52–54

(I was new in this condition when I saw a Mighty One come here, crowned with sign of victory.)

To the Christian reader of the Divine Comedy, for whom the identity and significance of the possente in question are hardly insignificant matters, Virgil's words can only seem those of a tragic outsider. Virgil recognizes the power of Christ, just as he recognizes in the cruciform nimbus a sign of victory. Yet it is clear that he is speaking from within the discourse of Classicism, for the specificity of Christ's power and victory go unmentioned. The harrower of Hell is consequently depicted as the last in an apparently endless series of conquerors, a bolder Theseus, a more powerful Hercules, a more courageous Mars Ultor: a rescuer of souls but not a universal saviour. Nowhere are we reminded that in the Christian conception Christ's power must by necessity transcend the boundaries of Classical epic, nor that the term "victory" must here suggest no less than the irreversible swallowing up of death into eternal life.

What Dante has Virgil dramatize in his description is that, in the end, the gap between Christian truth and Classical vision is unbridgeable. The hopelessness of limbo is the consequent fate of Classicism: without access to the proper name of Christ, without a mastery of the Word, it is forever condemned to a tragic state of hermeneutic suspense, forever alienated from its own words and meanings. Like the Virgil that Statius describes in Purgatory 22, Classicism advances like a somnambulant along the path of history, facing the starless immensity of the night, and yet bearing behind its back — and for the exclusive benefit of future men — the very principle that renders it intelligible: the light of Christ.

All the more poignant is that, despite the essential role performed by the Aeneid in the disclosure of Christ's historical mission, Virgil remains in death as in life a tragically flawed reader. The concrete signs of the Christ-event (the immediate carnal presence of the actual harrower of Hell), and the fact of Classical Elysium's topographical marginality to Christian paradise, have no real impact: the ultimate meanings of all events and signs, so long as Christ remains hidden in anonymity, will be a mystery to Classical man. Virgil's predicament in canto 4 clarifies the central place of Christ in Dante's literary system. It is not that all linguistic and literary alterity simply vanishes for those who, like the poet-pilgrim, take up their cross and follow Christ. Nor is poetic vision in any way guaranteed in the wake of the Christ-event. On the contrary, the gap dividing sign and signified, letter and spirit, appearance and essence, virtue and reward, persists: indeed it continues to define what Dante saw as the essential dynamism of human history.

Christians born into the hiatus between Christ's first and second advents thus live in suspense, occupying their own sort of historical limbo. But since they are inhabited by hope, their predicament is not a tragic one. Unlike Virgil, they are even able to read behind their backs because they gaze directly into the light of the sol Christi: a principle of intelligibility which animates not only individual and collective life, but also the general movement of human history toward those ultimate events in which all creation will be bound up into eternity.

In the course of the present study I show the full extent to which the central cantos of Paradise may be regarded as Dante's Christian response to the dilemma of Inferno 4. In the heaven of Mars — against an explicitly Virgilian backdrop — Dante reaches the center of his own celestial Elysium: a truly Christian Elysian homeland and Hall of Fame in which the name of Christ is fully known and over which his sign of victory shines like a resplendent sun. Dante scholarship (and such names as Cosmo, del Lungo, Momigliano, Pascoli, Rajna, Rheinfelder, Vallone, Vianello, and Vossler come to mind) has tended to divide into two camps over these cantos, one emphasizing their "true Flemish miniatures and everyday household scenes," to paraphrase de Sanctis; that is, the concrete poetic particulars of Cacciaguida and of his narrative and prophecies; the other emphasizing their links to the overarching structures and themes of the poem as a whole.1 If the persistence of Croce's distinction between the "poetry" and "structure" of Dante's text can still be felt in this division, I have tried to bypass any such dichotomy. What is proposed in its place is a comprehensive reading, attentive to broader intertextual and structural matters, but whose principal aim is to reconstruct the link — a properly "figural" link, as Auerbach would have had it — between the historical minutiae of cantos 15–17 and the abstract cross of cantos 14 and 18; the link, to evoke another dyad familiar to students of Dante's poem, between the "poetry" and the "theology" of Dante's heaven of Mars.

While this reconstruction begins with an in-depth inquiry into Dante's rewriting of Book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid, the central relay from the Classical to the Christian is provided, not by a literary work, but rather by a visual one. Dante's vision, I suggest, is modeled not only after Virgil (and, to a lesser extent, Cicero's Dream of Scipio), but also after the apsidal mosaics of Sant' Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna: mosaics in which the iconographies of Christ's Transfiguration or Metamorphosis and of the Exaltation of the Cross are uniquely blended in a celebration of the victorious Christ. These sixth-century mosaics Dante modifies and adapts for his reworking of the Elysian encounter of Aeneas and Anchises in a Christian key. Their celebration of martyrdom as a repraesentatio Christi, of the martyr's heroic triumph over death, and of his resulting powers of prophetic vision, are thus pointedly juxtaposed with the epic heroism, the limbic hopelessness, and the terrifying prophetic riddles of the Classical world.

Such contrasts serve to underscore the centrality of the cross in the scheme of things: only it, Dante believed, could truly bind history to eternity and man to God, and bring to poetry the firmer hermeneutic and epistemological foundations which make available to human utterance and interpretation those ultimate meanings that eluded Virgil and Classical civilization. Yet the central message of the cross in cantos 14–18 remains a more immediate and personal one as well: it exhorts the poet-pilgrim to persevere, to rise up and conquer the adversities of history, and, most of all, to complete without hesitation or fear the exemplary act of faith which is the writing of his Commedia.

History and Eternity

In the opening chapter I set out in general terms a dialectic which will reappear under a multiplicity of guises in the course of the present study: the dialectic of "history" and "eternity." It is this dialectic, sometimes conceptualized as a play of perspectives, sometimes as an equation of sacrifice and reward, or death and transfiguration, which serves as the underlying structural mechanism in the otherworldly encounters of father and son found in cantos 14–18 of Dante's Paradise, Book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid and Book 6 of Cicero's Republic. Each involves an exchange of contrasting paternal and filial views whose ultimate objective is the conversion of the son — the "protagonist of history" — to an epic task: a sacrificial endeavor occupying a special place in the providential ordering of history.

In the chapter that immediately follows, I explore this complex of themes with respect to Aeneid 6 and Anchises' representation of Roman history, concentrating on a number of unresolved tensions in Virgil's text which make it available to a "tragic" Christian reading. Dante's "tragic" reading of Book 6 does not, as does that of Saint Augustine, lead to a refutation of the entire Virgilian construct, but it does insist on the anarchic presence within Roman history of Mars: the most politically corrosive and destabilizing of the planets and Gods but — paradox of paradoxes — the mythical founder of the city and the presiding force behind its rise. Yet Mars's role in Book 6, as in cantos 14–18, extends far beyond this propagation of political flux, for Mars becomes the symbolic bearer of an even deeper more elemental negativity. His grip on human history is ultimately revealed as the tyrannical reign of death and of its blinding perspectives over the human city.

This presence of Mars at the heart of the human city condemns Rome and Florence alike — the latter is the subject of my third chapter — to the incessant cycles of natural history: the city rises, it falls, it is regenerated, it is corrupted, but most of all it undergoes the constant cycle of transmutations known to the Middle Ages as Fortune. And this is true whether the Mars in question is he who presides over Rome's internecine struggles, or rather he who animates the ontological violence Dante associates with Florentine mercantilism. If in Classical political theory and historiography such naturalist metaphors arise as a matter of course, there is in Virgil, as in Dante, a powerful will to uncover a higher logic, a providential pattern, an overarching moral in the text of history. It is this desire that lends the particular pathos to both texts which is so distinctively Virgilian and Dantean: the history of the city must be more than just eternal cyclicality, and it is this symbolic more that both texts set out to uncover and represent.

But the supplement required to remedy this situation could not come from "within" an urban order in which Mars himself was the city-father. The central portions of chapters 2 and 3 are concerned with the remedy to this founding negativity that Virgil and Dante propose: the father's prophetic intervention from the beyond, whether Classical Elysium or Christian Paradise. With the father's fictional intrusion into the text of history comes the supplement that is required if history is to transcend its own hermeneutic and epistemological limitations.

For Providence's plan to be fulfilled, the son must see beyond the tragic immediacy of the present. Yet the effect of Mars is precisely to render this impossible. Only the "eternalized" father can supply the necessary perspective: a prophetic vision of the otherworld, of the ultimate rewards that await the son, and of the meaning of the task assigned him. The father's role is to bridge the gap between history and eternity, present and future, present and past; making plain the logos that underlies the apparent anarchy of historical events, and revealing history's obstacles to the achievement of the epic endeavor as what they "truly" are: mere shadows, temporary detours on a road to eternal glory.

The paradigm then that emerges in the course of chapters 2 and 3 is one structured around a number of polarities: father and son, eternity and history, reward and sacrifice. Bridging the gap between each opposing pair is the father's prophetic intervention, the success or failure of which hinges on his conversion of the son to his own otherworldly perspective. It is here that Dante locates the underlying "tragedy" of Aeneid 6, for without an undemanding of the role of Christ such otherworldly perspectives could only partially overcome the blinding effects of Mars's rule. In chapter 4 I explore Dante's own solution to the apparent negativity of human history and to the incompleteness of Virgil: the sign of the cross, a sign which in the course of cantos 14–18 will indeed provide a definitive bridge between history and eternity right at the center of Dante's celestial paradise.

The cross of light which appears over Dante's heaven of Mars plays a number of highly charged symbolic roles in cantos 14–18, and it is these that I explore in my fourth chapter. The chapter is divided into three distinct sections: Exaltation, Transfiguration, and Revelation — each concerned with a specific dimension of Dante's cross of light. In "Exaltation" I consider the cross's iconographic origins, its numerological peculiarities and symbolic implications, and its relation to Dante's Classical prototypes as well as to the various liturgies of the cross. In "Transfiguration" I turn instead to a specific gospel incident in Christ's biography which was long viewed as a clarification of the Christian theology of the cross: Jesus' metamorphosis before his disciples on the road to Jerusalem. The Transfiguration of Christ, I argue, plays a decisive supplementary role in cantos 14–18, and unveils not only an eschatological "higher logic" which apparently solves the dilemma of history under the destabilizing rule of Mars, but also the Christian analogue to Classicism's epic reward: not deification but transfiguration — a metamorphosis of the self into Jesus Christ. This is to say that it entirely redefines the genealogical themes that are so important to the encounter of Aeneas and Anchises and provides a key model for the general process of poetic "trans-humanization" (trasumanar [1.70]) characteristic of Paradise as a whole.

In "Revelation" I return to a theme with which I opened chapter 2: the theme of Mars as the god of discord, ontological violence, and disorder. I suggest, via an examination of Dante's identification of Mars as the heaven of music in Convivio 2.13, that what is figured in the sign of the cross is a grand resolution of all of history's apparent differences: a harmonization so complete that it points beyond the Classical formula harmonia est concordia discors (harmony is discordant concord), with its implicit theory of irreconcilable opposites, to the differentiated discordia concors (concordant discord) of the citizens of the apocalyptic city. All negativity, all tragic and/or discordant perspectives, will be revealed as illusory in the end: such is the radical promise of the eschatological cross of light which Dante places at the center of his celestial paradise. Negative signs will become positive signs, history's tragedies, eternity's comedy. This hermeneutic harmonization makes of the cross of light a particularly apt symbol of the oracle of Christ: an oracle which at the center of Paradise will displace the inadequate oracles of Apollo. The Christ/Apollo confrontation, I suggest, produces one especially audacious substitution in the course of cantos 14–18: the cross of light is disclosed as the true Helios of Dante's Christian cosmos, taking the place of the actual sun in the universal symphony.

In my closing chapter I turn to the apsidal mosiacs of Sant' Apollinare in Classe which, like cantos 14–18 — at least in my interpretation — represent a unique fusion of the iconography of the Exaltation of the Cross and of Christ's Transfiguration. Although my reading of the Cacciaguida cantos does not rest upon this association, I suggest that a number of important structural, iconographic, symbolic, and visual features in these mosaics are relevant not only to Dante's Martial vision, but also to his appropriation of Virgil's Book 6. I focus in particular on the substitution of the transfigured (i.e., solar) Christ with the cross of light, the structural role given the bishop-martyr Saint Apollinaris and its analogies to that of Cacciaguida, and on the orant pose adopted by both in their respective paradisiac settings.


Excerpted from The Transfiguration of History at the Center of Dante's Paradise by Jeffrey T. Schnapp. Copyright © 1986 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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