Although midday is commonly associated with indolence or the languishing of both nature and humanity in stifling heat, Nicolas Perella shows that this connectionhowever realis secondary to an archetypal encounter with noontide as a moment of existential crisis of spiritual as well as erotic dimensions. First tracing the literary presence of this image from classical and biblical antiquity to Nietzsche and other modern writers, he then analyzes the preoccupation with midday in the imagination of Italian authors from Dante to the present.
When the sun is at its point of greatest strength, the blaze of noon is variously experienced as a wave of glory or a moment of dread, as an occasion for reaching out to the Absolute or retreating from the Abyss, as a source of fullness and energy or of emptiness and lethargy, that ultimately may either expand or annihilate being. The author contends that it is the intimation of crisis surrounding this ambiguous moment that accounts for the richly variegated psychological and aesthetic experience of its imagery in Italian literature.
Originally published in 1979.
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Midday in Italian Literature
Variations of an Archetypal Theme
By Nicolas J. Perella
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1979 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
From Dante to Pindemonte
Le soleil ni la mort ne se peuvent regarder fxxement.
For those who have only normal or "natural" vision, La Rochefoucauld's maxim is all too true. Dante himself had written that the sun has two properties in common with arithmetic: its light "informs" all other stars, and the human eye cannot gaze into it. But for the truly spiritual man it is different. Within the Divine Comedy's framework of a narration of the journey in the afterlife to God, Dante's ascension from the earthly to the celestial Paradise is intimately connected with the unshadowing sun at its zenith. Exactly at midday — "E più corusco e con più lenti passi / Teneva il sole il cerchio di merigge" (Purgatorio XXXIII, 103-104) — Dante is finally made whole again and restored to a state of perfect innocence and perfect justice. ("Midi le juste," said Valéry in a different context, but not entirely without applicability here.) And following his ritual ablutions in the streams of Lethe (forgetfulness of evil deeds) and Eunoe (restoration of memory of good deeds), it is still midday when Beatrice looks up into the sun (symbol of the Divinity), and Dante, gazing first into the reflected sunlight in Beatrice's eyes, acquires the power to look directly into the plentitude of light that streams down perpendicularly from above. Infused with this new spiritual energy (i.e., sanctifying grace), Dante begins to rise into the celestial Paradise, the final phase of his mystical journey (Paradiso I, 43-53).
For Dante, as for other religious spirits before and after him, especially in the Christian tradition, the midday sun is the image of the Divine Splendor. Indeed, one is tempted to say that in the Divine Comedy it is the Divine Splendor. In the Convivio Dante had written that there is no physical object more worthy than the sun to signify God (cf. Saint Francis's "Canticle of the Creatures"), inasmuch as it is not only self-illuminating, but also illuminates all other heavenly and earthly bodies: "Nullo sensibile in tutto lo mondo è più degno di farsi essemplo di Dio che 'l sole; lo quale di sensibile luce sé prima e poi tutte le corpora celestiali e le elementali illumina" (Convivio III, xii, 7). Even more important for us is his digression on the four parts of the day and the corresponding canonical hours. Midday (i.e., noon sharp) is said to be the "noblest" hour of the day, and the most "virtuous" (Convivio IV, xxiii, 12-16). The principal reason for this exalted position of the noon hour lies in the fact that the meridian marks the maximum point (the zenith) of ascendancy in the diurnal arc or course of the sun. It is the same with the arc or course of man's life. For this reason Christ chose to die in the fullness of life — his meridian (i.e., at thirty-five years of age) — and at the solar hour of midday, when the physical sun was at its highest and its fullest strength. Saint Ambrose had observed that the splendor of the Divine Light is at its fullest at midday. Even more pertinent is the fact that he associated the idea of midday with the Sun of Justice, noting that the just man carries midday within himself; it is midday for those upon whom the Sun of Justice shines: "Habemus ergo in nobis meridiem. Meridies est ei cui justitiae sol refulget." In Eden at the meridian of his own life (see Inferno I, 1), and finding himself with newly acquired perfect justice, Dante rises toward Christ, the Midday Sun of Justice.
The emblematic value given to the midday sun as a symbol of God's justice and glory is actually anticipated early in Purgatorio. This occurs when the pilgrim Dante meets Belacqua among those souls who are obliged to spend time waiting in the Antepurgatory before being allowed to start the actual purification of their sins on Purgatory's seven punitive terraces. The waiting period imposed upon these particular souls is the result of their having come to repentance and a reconciliation with God only in extremis. Now, in the shade of a massive boulder where they have sought refuge from the sun's rays, these lounging souls appear as the very image of physical laziness and weariness, especially Belacqua (known to Dante on earth during his mortal life) who sits clasping his knees and holding his face down between them. In the previous canto (III) Dante had applied the image of sheep explicitly to the souls in Purgatory, and the aptly applied metaphor is a constant in this realm where the souls tend to move together in flocks. The picture of the negligent souls that Dante now sees suggests the image of sheep resting motionless in the shade at noontide:
Ed ivi eran persone
Che si stavano all'ombra dietro al sasso
Come l'uom per negghienza a star si pone.
E un di lor, che mi sembiava lasso,
Sedeva e abbracciava le ginocchia,
Tenendo il viso giù tra esse basso.
(Purgatorio IV, 103-108)
Since Dante's Purgatory is situated on the earth and therefore has its diurnal cycle, these souls could have been met at any hour in the area of Antepurgatory. Hence it is a sign of the emblematic value of midday that Dante has staged his encounter with them during that part of the day that is commonly and spontaneously associated with a pause in the activity of men and nature. The condition of spiritual laziness or sloth that was theirs in earthly life is figured in these sheeplike souls who are at rest in the shade, out of the midday sun which is the symbol of God's justice and glory. When Dante wonders why Belacqua is just sitting there rather than making his way up Mount Purgatory, the latter makes it plain that he will not leave the shade to attempt the climb, for he would not, in any case, be permitted to begin his purgative experience; and so, why bother? — "O frate, l'andar su che porta?" But not so the pilgrim Dante who understands Virgil's pointed reference (at the end of the canto) to the fact that it is midday — "vedi ch'e tocco I Meridian dal sole" — to be an admonition to lose no part of the day in continuing the climb to God's glory. Virgil's reference indicates both the actual physical hour and the goal of Dante's journey. And in contrast with the negligent souls fixed in the image of a slothful noontide siesta, the pilgrim moves out into the high-noon sun to continue his ascent.
The bucolic image of sheep resting at noon in the shade, which is only implicit in the passage just discussed, is explicitly employed as a simile later in the Purgatorio. Having passed through the seventh and last punitive terrace of Purgatory, the pilgrim Dante, after a few steps further up the mountain, finds that he and his guides (Virgil and Statius) must once again stop for the night because of the law that forbids any climbing after sundown. Settling down to rest, the weary pilgrim now "ruminates" (as line 91 has it) on the day's events. Dante here compares himself with goats who after a morning of wild frolicking have come to rest in the shade while the midday sun blazes:
Quali si stanno ruminando manse
Le capre, state rapide e proterve
Sopra le cime avante che sian pranse,
Tacite a l'ombra, mentre che 'l sol ferve,
Guardate dal pastor, che 'n su la verga
Poggiato s'è e lor di posa serve.
(Purgatorio XXVII, 76-81)
It is a picture of a placid noontide, complete with the presence of the goatherd caught in a perennially true moment of leaning on his staff as he watches over the flock. But more than a description of idle pastoralism is intended here. Coming at a time when Dante has been making vigorous efforts to climb but now must halt, the image creates the sense of a vast pause or suspension. Yet it is interesting that the image of a bucolic noontide pause should be used to describe the mood and the hour of evening by the poet who, as we have already seen, earlier in the climb up Mount Purgatory did not hesitate to go forth under the sun during the actual hour of midday and who soon after the metaphorical noontide just described (the third and final night on Purgatory) was to leave even the most beautiful of pastoral oases (Eden) — typically the ideal midday retreat — in order to rise to the glory of eternal noon.
In the more mundane eyes of Boccaccio's blithe band (lieta brigata) of seven women and three men of the Decameron who have fled plague-stricken Florence and retired into the countryside, noontide with its torrid heat and intolerable light calls for a retreat of its own (thus a retreat within a retreat) that consists of a nap followed by a longer period devoted to the narration of stories void of traditional religious values but not always without a moral intent. To this purpose, shortly after the ora nona has "struck," the group seeks a spot out of doors where it will be protected from the midday sun. It is a nicely idealized if not magical space: a meadow with luscious green grass where a soft breeze conveniently blows and olive trees supply the shade. The sun's rays are unable to invade the refuge: "né vipoteva [i.e., penetrava] d'alcuna parte il sole." The phrase is significant, for it seems to suggest that along with the actual physical sun all extraterrestrial concerns are excluded.
Though the rays of the noonday sun may not penetrate there, the group can see that the sun is high. The silence of the hour is broken only by the sound of the cicadas coming from the olive trees, a detail that, while it is characteristic of midday settings in southern lands, also has literary sources in Theocritus and Virgil (poets of the south). These ancient sources have doubtless contributed to making cicadas a constant in literary noonscapes down to our own epoch. Here the members of the lieta brigata sit upon the grass in order to beguile the hottest part of the day by telling stories — sad and gay — of the defeats and triumphs of earth-bound creatures. Pampinea, the acknowledged leader of the group sets the stage:
Come voi vedete, il sole è alto ed il caldo è grande, né altro s'ode che le cicale su per gli ulivi, per che l'andare al presente in alcun luogo sarebbe senza dubbio sciocchezza. Qui è bello e fresco stare ... [e] novellando, il che può porgere, dicendo uno, a tutta la compagnia che ascolta diletto, questa calda parte del giorno trapasseremo.
Each day for ten days the pastime is repeated, and on each occasion there are references to the time or the position of the sun and, in particular, to the heat of the hour. The curious but significant effect of this repetition is to lend a quasi-ritualistic character to a mundane mood and activity. There is built up the sense of a deliberate opposition of the locus amoenus (in which the storytelling takes place) against the menace of a hostile moment of nature. The storytelling itself might almost be a magical rite. It is all very urbane, of course, and who could argue with what seems to be so rational a suggestion. As Pampinea says, the sun is high, the heat stifling, and all things are at rest (only the sound of the cicadas in the olive trees breaks the silence), so that it would certainly be foolish to go anywhere at this hour. Thus one might prefer to speak here of a secular analogue to a primitive or religious behavioral pattern. The pattern remains clear, though Boccaccio has employed it with his own dual purpose: he has made it serve an aesthetic end in the creation of a narrative structure, and, closely related to this aim, he has sought to desacralize midday, which serves his secular ethic in the storytelling. The noontime telling of tales has been substituted for the Church-prescribed office for the hour of none. A human space, a totally "earthly" paradise has shut out the direct rays of that midday sun which has symbolical connections with the Divinity and, what is even more pertinent here, with the "destruction that wasteth at noonday" — the raging pestilence from which the lieta brigata has sought to escape.
The motif of setting a group of storytellers in a shady retreat during the hot midday hours had been used earlier by Boccaccio in his pastoral romance Ameto where the nymph Lia makes much the same invitation to her companions as does Pampinea to hers. Of more interest, however, is the development the Ameto brings in verse to the topos of the shepherd-swain's invitation to his nymph to come out of the heat of the noonday sun and into a shady retreat — a locus amoenus — where he awaits her with precious fruits and gentle animals. With these verses Boccaccio helped to inaugurate a long tradition of pastoral midday eroticism of the kind that was to be particularly fashionable in the eighteenth century and was eventually to give us the midday fauns of Mallarmé and D'Annunzio. The topos allowed for a description of midday in a country setting, emphasizing its vexatious, negatively perceived effects but also including something of the inviolate character of the hour.
The swain's song begins with references to the position of the meridian sun under whose perpendicular rays the shadows that might offer shelter are reduced to a minimum. A gentle breeze invites men at that hour to flee from the sun and to seek a refuge in shady bowers while the sun reigns like a sky god "feeding" on land and sea:
Febo salito già a mezzo il cielo
Con più dritto occhio ne mira e raccorta
L'ombre de' corpi che gli si fan velo;
E Zeffiro soave ne conforta
Di lui fuggire e l'ombre seguitare
Fin che da lui men calda ne sia pórta
La luce sua, che nell'umido mare
Ora si pasce, e in terra pigliando
Il cibo quale a sua deità pare.
All animals have gone into their lairs where they "ruminate" on what they had eaten in the morning, and the idea of a suffering nature is evoked in the image of flowers wilting in the oppressive heat: "E ogni fiera ascosa, ruminando / Quel c'ha pasciuto nel giovane sole, / Tien le caverne, lui vecchio aspettando. // Fra l'erbe si nascondon le viole / Per lo venuto caldo, gli altri fiori / Mostran, bassati, quanto lor ne dole" (10-15). The shepherds have guided their flocks away from the open grazing fields to shaded areas (16-18), and an absolute quiet has stilled the voices of the forest: "Taccion le selve e tace ciò che in quelle / Suol far romore" (19-20). But though all other forms of life seek refuge in the shade, the shepherd's nymph, reluctant to rest from the hunt, wanders alone in the torrid landscape: "E ciascheduna cosa i blandimenti / Ora dell'ombre cerca; ma tu sola, / Lia, trascorri per l'aure cocenti" (28-30). As he continues his plea for her to come to his retreat, Ameto compares the nymph to beautiful restorative aspects of nature. In this passage, the oppressive midday hour becomes emblematic of the distressful passion of the shepherd-swain, and in this sense Boccaccio very likely owes something to Virgil's second eclogue. Though his swain has sought out the shade while Virgil's Corydon cannot do so, for both suitors noontide has an erotic value.
No less important in the development of the mythology of midday eroticism in Western literature is the motif with which the prose narration of the Ameto opens. After a successful morning chase in a lush mountain forest, the young hunter has descended to the foot of the mountain where, at noon, he pauses to rest under a leafy tree not far from a stream. Hearing a more than human voice that sweetly sings a song that is unknown to him, and finding it to be coming from the bank of the stream, the enchanted Ameto can only think that divinities have made their appearance at that hour. After making his way to the stream, he espies a group of maidens (giovinette) in varying degrees of dress, some bathing, some sitting on the grass rich with flowers. At this sight Ameto experiences a sense of awe, accompanied by terror at the thought that he might suffer the fate of Actaeon. But Boccaccio, significantly enough, supplies a happy ending to the episode he has borrowed from Ovid, for here the nymphs welcome the young hunter into their midst. And there Ameto is soon at his ease, so that any element of religious awe that Boccaccio, in appropriating the Ovidian account, may have wished to suggest as part of his hero's terror is quickly undercut and dissipated. Despite the attempt (somewhat awkward if not grotesque) to allegorize the sensual nymphs of the Ameto into Christian virtues, in this initial episode midday has been secularized, so to speak, no less than was to be the case in the later episode of the Decameron discussed above.
Excerpted from Midday in Italian Literature by Nicolas J. Perella. Copyright © 1979 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
- Frontmatter, pg. i
- Contents, pg. v
- Preface, pg. vii
- Introduction, pg. 1
- I. From Dante to Pindemonte, pg. 33
- II. The Nineteenth Century, pg. 70
- III. Gabriele D’Annunzio, pg. 114
- IV. Some Twentieth-Century Voices, pg. 145
- V. Giuseppe Ungaretti, pg. 201
- VI . Eugenio Montale, pg. 240
- Conclusion, pg. 263
- Notes, pg. 267
- Bibliography, pg. 329
- Index, pg. 331