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Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture.

Experiencing the Afterlife: Soul and Body in Dante and Medieval Culture. By Manuele Gragnolati. (The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante Studies, 7) Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press. 2005. xvii+279 PP. $50 (pbk $25). ISBN 978-0-268-02964-7 (pbk 978-0-268-02965-4).

Dante criticism all too seldom ventures beyond the confines of a well-defined canon of learned and literary texts. But this reluctance is triumphantly challenged in Manuele Gragnolati's excellent book on Dante and medieval eschatology. This seventh volume in the Devers Series explores the connections between the Commedia and the Northern Italian tradition of popular, didactic vernacular poetry, in particular Bonvesin della Riva's tripartite Libro de le tre scritture. Taken together, Chapters 1 and 3 offer an important revision of the tendency among earlier critics to dismiss the possibility that Bonvesin could be meaningfully viewed as a precursor to Dante.

The cultural context that interests Gragnolati is that of a shift in eschatological emphasis from the Last Judgement at the end of history to the period between death and the Resurrection, a period in which the soul, though theoretically separated from the body, was nevertheless envisioned as embodied and capable of experiencing physical pain and delight. After an initial consideration of the work of Uguccione da Lodi and Giacomo da Verona, Gragnolati shows, through a close reading of Bonvesin's Scriptura nigra and Scriptura aurea, that the Milanese poet's depiction of the separated soul as fully embodied while still conscious of lacking the wholeness that will be bestowed by resurrection anticipates the complexity of Dante's eschatology.

What distinguishes Dante from Bonvesin, of course, is the intensity of his engagement with the philosophical culture associated with medieval eschatology, and in the subsequent chapter Gragnolati outlines, with commendable clarity, the divergent opinions of Bonaventure and Aquinas on the formation of the human soul. One of the highlights of the book lies in the remarkable way in which, as he revisits the debate of the 1920s between Busnelli and Nardi, Gragnolati manages to infuse new life into the questions provoked by Statius's celebrated discourse on embryology in Purgatorio XXV. From the fact that the process being described becomes discontinuous at the point at which God intervenes to create the rational soul, it is argued that Dante abandons the doctrine of plurality of form he follows in the initial stages to move towards a roughly Thomist conception of unicity of form.

Gragnolati's achievement here is not only to redress the imbalance in Nardi's anti-Thomist reading, but also to qualify the enthusiasm of the Thomists by pointing out how Dante differs from Aquinas. In keeping with recent critical trends, this highly satisfying reading of a crucial passage in the Commedia thus ends by stressing Dante's originality and his 'ideological syncretism' (p. 73). On the other hand though, where Gragnolati proposes that the non-human bodies of the suicides and thieves can be accounted for in terms of Statius's adoption of unicity of form (p. 80), one wonders if, in seeking to explain Dante's narrative strategies as a wholly coherent reflection of one particular philosophical doctrine, Gragnolati risks disallowing the poet's eclecticism and thus downplaying the roles played by, say, Ovid or Virgil. This is not, however, to suggest that Gragnolati's reading of the distortion of corporeality in the Inferno is implausible. His knowledge of the debates with which he engages, evident throughout both in the main text and in the wonderfully meticulous notes, is such that the originality of his insights is always reassuringly grounded in the work of other scholars.

When Gragnolati returns, in his third chapter, to Bonvesin, his comparative analysis of the Scriptura rugia and the Purgatorio allows him to make an important contribution to the assessment of Le Goff's thesis regarding the origins of the concept of Purgatory, and, more specifically, to construct a reading of the second cantica as 'a journey with and toward Christ' (p. 134). An analysis of Bonvesin's portrayal of Christ and Mary at the crucifixion becomes the basis for a persuasive hypothesis that the role of physical pain in the Purgatorio is to provide an opportunity for the penitent shades to identify themselves with the suffering of Christ's Passion.

This elegantly structured book returns neatly in its concluding section to where it began by showing how Dante resolves the tensions surrounding the somatomorphic soul by transcending the eschatological time-frame. The last of Gragnolati's many important contributions to our understanding of the articulation of corporeality in the Commedia comes with his final, highly convincing suggestion that the experience of the protagonist in the Paradiso should be seen as that of the progressive 'transformation of his body into a resurrected body' (p. 176).

Shinshu University David Ruzicka
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Author:Ruzicka, David
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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