John C. Barnes and Jennifer Petrie, eds.: Dante and the Human Body. Eight Essays.John C. Barnes and Jennifer Petrie, eds. Dante and the Human Body. Eight Essays. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007.
A conduit of sensorial experience and an essential referent for conceptualization of what transcends the parameters of mortal perception, the body informs much early Western thought. As demonstrated in the scintillating collection of essays Dante and the Human Body, the ferment of corporeality with spiritual devotion forms a complex somatic semiotics, central to medieval literature and to the canonical Commedia of Dante Alighieri.
Simon A. Gilson begins with "The Anatomy and Physiology of the Human Body in the Commedia", in which he elucidates the widespread medieval tendency to conflate scientific and philosophical teachings. Dante's use of medical language is traced to an interest in authors of natural history, most notably Albert the Great, whose influence is implicit, for example, in the description of the soul Pier da Medicina: "the most interesting anatomical term is 'canna' (trachea) [...] Albert uses 'canna' repeatedly in his De Anima and De Animalibus [...] commenting upon its role in the production of the human voice (the very act through which Pier disseminated discord)" (34). Gilson crafts a study of medical history that facilitates powerful insight into poetic language.
This interdisciplinary analysis continues in the next essay, Vivian Nutton's "Dante, Medicine, and the Invisible Body'. Enquiries into the poet's medical knowledge have tended to focus either on evaluations of scientific accuracy or on strictly literary readings despite the fact that, as Nutton notes, "Aristotle's famous dictum, 'Philosophy begins where medicine ends', is misleading only if it is taken to mean that there was a clean break between the two" (59). She concludes that Dante's attraction to medical information lay in the crux of the theological and the physical self--the invisible changes in complexion and constitution that were thought to prompt physiological illness. In the Commedia's gross anatomical detail lies a means to understand the workings of the soul.
Interrelatedness of base physicality with disposition of the soul is an ideal mechanism for exploring the relatively static role of aerial bodies in Hell. Corporeality becomes problematic with the pilgrim's ascent to the transitive space of Purgatory, from whence a progression to the pure and immaterial realm of Heaven is implied. Joseph Ziegler's essay, "The Scientific Context of Dante's Embryology', takes up Statius' discourse in Purgatory XXV as "an auxiliary tool for clarifying the physical state of the shades [who] unfold bodies out of their souls as the expression of their particularity, just as the evolving embryo expresses the soul that animates it" (63). Ziegler situates Dante's views within the context of gestational studies around the turn of the 14th century. The Statius passage evinces a general knowledge of contemporary Aristotelian derivations on the subject, but the poet either lacked awareness of or chose to disregard more complex scholarly tracts, emphasizing instead the transformative role of God in human "ensoulment'.
Statius' embryological discourse also informs Simone De Angelis' contribution, "Sanatio and Salvatio: 'Body' and Soul in the Experience of Dante's Afterlife". Here it elucidates the formative power ('virtue informativa') which is imbued in the embryo via the sperm and which, through its continued presence in the divine "intellective" soul, informs the aerial body of souls in the afterlife. "Dante's deep interest in the penitential experience of souls at the psychic-affective level of their existence leads him to the creative act of imagining the regeneration of the "body" immediately after physical death" (106). This essay demonstrates the poet's curatorial use of medical knowledge as a supplementation of his narrative.
Aerial bodies allow the shades sensitive faculties, which gain in importance beyond the lacerations of Hell as corporeal suffering takes on the promise of a transformative process in Purgatory. In his essay, "Nostalgia in Heaven: Embraces, Affection, and Identity', Manuele Gragnolati explores the paradoxical existence of these formally manifest but fleshless souls, demonstrating the ambivalence of pre-Judgement "vanita". Nostalgic anxiety for reunion with the body contradicts the Augustinian mandate to total love of God that structurally informs the Commedia's Purgatory: "in particular, the failed embrace [between the pilgrim and Casella] indicates that the earthly body is mortal and that one should not feel desire for it or for the interactions it makes possible" (128). The keenly felt inability to embrace emphasizes both the transience of mortal physicality and the provisional imperfection of the aerial form.
Evaluating anatomy in the Commedia, connexions with dissection manuals seem inevitable, given the exquisite detail of the pilgrim's inventory of suffering. In her contribution, "Divina Anatomia: Laying Bare Body and Soul', Elizabeth Mozzillo-Howell notes correspondences between medieval perceptions of Marsyas' flaying by Apollo, dissection, and Dante's visions of bodies in the afterlife. This analysis suggests a semiotics of wounding: "the myth was [...] important in the Renaissance as a paradigm of how external appearance hides the inner reality of things" (154). Transgression of said paradigmatic concealment is central particularly to the Inferno; Mozzillo-Howell describes the semi-eviscerated figure of the prophet Muhammad in Inferno XXVIII, who embodies Apollo's dictum "Know thyself" via his evocation of the "self-displaying" dissected man common in medieval medical illustration.
The prospect of an ambivalent afterlife proposed by Gragnolati is also featured in Vittorio Montemaggi's contribution, "Human Bodies and the Truth in the Commedia". Here the presence in Hell of Ulysses, a figure who has been damned in the same pursuit as that which guides the pilgrim--for "the ultimate truths of virtue and knowledge" leads to interrogation of Dante's conception of divine truth. Montemaggi situates the discrepancy between the two men in the Augustinian question of active versus contemplative life; Ulysses' process of discernment necessitates abandonment of temporal pursuits, while Dante's is inextricably bound to mechanisms of human community. Again the paradox of embodiment and imminent resurrection is raised, since "for Dante it would make no sense at all to think that at the end of time each person should not be reunited with his or her earthly flesh [or] to think that even between death and the resurrection the soul should not continue to exist in bodily fashion" (171). Montemaggi skillfully argues that this does not detract from the need to pursue absolute love of God, so much as define the limits of human understanding: for Dante, divine will is essentially inscrutable, and relinquishment of presumption to complete comprehension is a prerequisite for virtue, as manifested in societal dynamics.
Oliver Davies' "World and Body: Dante's Cosmological Hermeneutics" is a graceful theological conclusion of the collection. Maintaining the centrality of transfiguration to medieval Christianity, Davies demonstrates the prevalence of transformation throughout Dante's oeuvre: "the dislocated and inverted bodies of the damned repeat the shattered landscape of Hell, while the diaphanous, melodious bodies of the blessed in Paradise are concretizations of the ubiquitous light that everywhere forms the fabric of the celestial spheres" (202). This malleable symmetry between world and body is shown to be a highly dynamic mechanism, allowing for variant usage of a singular trope. Therefore, the abject formlessness of physicality and of speech in Hell reduces its inhabitants to caricature, whereas in Paradise "the flash of the eyes and the smile [...] maintain the particularity of human identity at the very moment when the body attains its highest semiotic saturation as a living sign of the infinite and celestial cosmos which lies beyond itself" (207). Herein lies an eloquent encapsulation of the poet's mastery of human anatomy: its rigorous debasement and passionate exaltation alike.