Antonio Rossini. Il Dante sapienziale: Dionigi e la bellezza di Beatrice.Antonio Rossini. Il Dante sapienziale: Dionigi e la bellezza di Beatrice. Pisa: Fabrizio Serra, 2009.
The "Wisdom Writings" of the Hebrew Bible enshrined in the Vulgate Old Testament--principally Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, and the Song of Songs--combine the dispensation of worldly wisdom in the form of proverbs and meditations with the telling of an allegorical love story between "Solomon," to whom these texts are traditionally ascribed, and the personified figure of Sophia or Sapientia. "Her have I loved, and have sought her out from my youth, and have desired to take her for my spouse," says the speaker of the Book of Wisdom (8:2) "and I became a lover of her beauty." Medieval Christian interpreters generally took the romance between the wise man and wisdom as a version of the "mystical marriage" between Christ and the Church, or Christ and the individual Christian soul. In this book, Antonio Rossini rightly finds in the relationship between Solomon and Sapientia a central analogy for that in the Divina Commedia between Dante and Beatrice, especially in its early phases when Dante's vision is still corporeal, "prima della visione della Gloria insostanziale del paradiso" (112). Among Beatrice's other characteristics in common with Lady Wisdom, he points to her physical beauty, her role as guide and teacher in the protagonist's gradual ascension to true understanding and ethical righteousness (theirs is a "dialogo amoroso che impone diuturna disciplina ed esercizio di comprensione della realta" 29), and her great luminosity. Sapientia is said to be "the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God's majesty, and the image of his goodness" and, in an image (I might add) echoed in numerous courtly texts, "more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it" (Wisdom 7:26 and 29).
Rossini identifies the principal theological intermediary between the Old Testament Wisdom Writings and Dante in the neo-Platonist doctrines of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, whose works on the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies argue that God, by the force of His love and goodness, gives to the created universe its countless gradations, and whose treatise Theologia mystica concerns the mystical union with God beyond the compass of sensuous or intellectual perception. The principal modern interpreter to whom he turns for an understanding of Dionysius and Dante's medieval intellectual context is the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Indeed, the strength of this book is its setting of Dante's allusions to the Old Testament figure of Wisdom in the framework of medieval and modern theology. To understand the gender-reversal in Dante's transformation of Beatrice into a Christ-figure, it helps to know something of how medieval Christian thinkers came to see Christ, the Word, second person of the Trinity, as foreshadowed in, or identical with, Biblical Sapientia. Several important links are missing from Rossini's analysis in my opinion, however, such as the medieval Church's incorporation of verses from the Wisdom books into the liturgy for the Virgin Mary and development of a sapiential Mariology. He also virtually ignores Lady Philosophy, Beatrice's predecessor and rival, clearly a medieval avatar of Lady Wisdom, and never mentions Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy as another important intermediary between the Hebrew personification and Dante. I believe that Dante's vernacular literary context is significant, too. Guido Guinizzelli, for instance, says of his mistress that "infra l'altre par lucente sole," and Guido Cavalcanti encounters a shepherdess who is "piu che la stella--bella," both echoing Wisdom 7:29, quoted above. Finally, there is a large body of recent North American scholarship on female aspects of the divine which, however heterodox, ought to be referenced; let me just mention Barbara Newman's book God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2003).
Rossini's book culminates in an extended analysis of the pageant of revelation in Purgatorio 28-33 (he also inventories Dante's allusions in these cantos to the Biblical Wisdom Books in an extremely useful "appendice ragionata" with which the book concludes). As he points out, Dante's personification of the books of the Bible allows him to insert Beatrice at the apex of salvation history, thus asserting her Christological status. Rossini observes that Beatrice, in the procession, "e corpo ma e anche testo" (76), and that the Vita Nova is thus surreptitiously included among the sacred scriptures. He also argues importantly that the procession itself is based on the typical liturgical framework for a medieval mass on a holiday. The most beautiful and significant passages in the book, in my mind, occur in the final chapter, when he speaks of Dante's text as performing the function of an icon or devotional object, fabricated by a human artist, yet intended not only to impose an ethical obligation on its audience, but also to generate an authentic visionary experience, according to the Dionysian and Gregorian concept of invisibilia per visibilia demonstrare. Dante's symbolic procession, Rossini ventures, might be taken as the literary double of Byzantine icons which, according to the Russian Orthodox theologian Pavel Florensky, allow the viewer to contemplate, with the help of art--as if through a window--not an image of the Virgin Mary, but Mary herself, in person, face to face. Rossini speculates in conclusion that Dante too, in representing his own personal "incontro nella carne col Mistero," may have hoped to facilitate a divine encounter "per Grazia" also in the minds of his readers (152).
I am left wondering, however, if many of the book's lay readers will ever reach its beautiful conclusion. Rossini's prose is hard-going for a number of reasons: his inclusion of extensive Latin quotations (sometimes several pages long) without translations, his use of specialized, technical vocabulary (he titles chapter 5, for instance, "L'anakefalaiosis di Beatrice a Purg. 28-33: Una cristologia soteriologica di taglio sapienziale') and assumption of the reader's familiarity with patristic sources, bis own protracted paragraphs, and so forth. Even I, who have also written many long pages on Beatrice's analogical relation to Biblical Wisdom, sometimes had difficulty following his argument. But in placing Sapientia at the center of Dante's theology, this book performs an important function and--to dantisti, at least--will be well worth the slog.