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La presenza di Dionigi Areopagita nel Paradiso di Dante.

Diego Sbacchi. La presenza di Dionigi Areopagita nel Paradiso di Dante.

Biblioteca di "Lettere Italiane." Studi e Testi 66. Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2006. xxiv + 148 pp. index. bibl. [euro]18. ISBN: 978-88-222-5574-7.

This diligent study derives from the author's doctoral dissertation at the University of Toronto. It seeks to show, in painstaking detail, that the structure of Dante's Paradiso is based in part on its angelology, and that Dante borrows this angelology from Pseudo-Dionysius, as interpreted by Albert the Great. As corollaries, we are to learn how important Pseudo-Dionysius is to the medieval Neoplatonic tradition, and how indebted the Paradiso is to this tradition.

The corollaries perhaps did not require demonstration. Given the long tradition of work on Dante and Neoplatonism, the prodigious medieval authority of a textual corpus accepted as the work of a disciple of Saint Paul, and the complexity of the Aristotelian-Neoplatonic synthesis in later medieval thought and in Dante--Aquinas, for example, cites Pseudo-Dionysius about 1,700 times--the repeated claim that Dante "belonged to a Neoplatonic philosophical culture" (115) is perhaps a trifle ingenuous: we already knew this. The same applies to the repeated claims that Dante had a "profound knowledge" (xiii), or "vast knowledge" (56), of the Dionysian texts: what Dante read, he read attentively.

The real contribution of this book, however, is in the details of its main argument. It begins with a brief but useful survey of the dating, transmission, translation, and glossing of the Dionysian corpus, and of previous studies of Dante's relation to this corpus. It proceeds, in the first chapter, to its principal point. When in Paradiso 28 Beatrice tells Dante the exact hierarchical order of the nine choirs of angels (corresponding to the nine moving heavens), she says that Dionysius got the order right, and Gregory the Great (whom Dante had followed in the Convivio) got it wrong, so that he smiled at his mistake when he arrived in heaven. In particular, Beatrice says that the Thrones fittingly conclude the first triad of angels: they thus correspond to Saturn, the heaven of contemplation, while in the Convivio Dante had instead associated them with Venus. Gregory said that the Thrones administer God's justice; Dionysius said they were simply the seats of God, fixed in contemplation of him; in Paradiso 19.28-30 Dante says that while the Thrones mirror divine justice, the realm of Jove (corresponding to the Dominations) apprehends divine justice without a veil. Sbacchi finds the explanation for each of these details in the commentary of Albert the Great to the Celestial Hierarchy of Pseudo-Dionysius. In his fidelity to Dionysius, Albert, like Dante, emphatically underlines that Gregory's ordering of the angels is mistaken: he says that the Thrones naturally conclude the first triad of angels because the Seraphim receive God in essence, knowledge, and love, the Cherubim in essence and knowledge, and the Thrones only in essence; and he says that because the Thrones repose in God, they have the faculty of judgment as a secondary attribute, but in itself that faculty is proper to the Dominations. The last point is key for Sbacchi: he shows through a painstaking survey that only Albert makes this claim, and it helps explain why Dante made the heaven of Jove the realm of just princes and divine justice.

Sbacchi goes on to argue that Dionysian angelology (again as glossed by Albert) helps explain the arrangement of all the souls in Dante's Paradiso. Dionysius divides the angelic hierarchy in three triads, corresponding to their degree of divine illumination. The bottom triad is associated with action, the second with order, and the top with contemplative wisdom; thus in the Paradiso, the moon, Mercury, and Venus contain active souls; the sun, Mars, and Jove contain souls who establish order; Saturn, the Fixed Stars, and the Primum Mobile contain souls absorbed in divine wisdom. Astrology determines the character and tendencies of the individual souls in the heavens; in fact, where there is no planet (as in the Fixed Stars and Primum Mobile), Dante meets no souls individualized by character traits. The argument, which the author extends to a correspondence between each order of angels and the category of souls in each heaven, is intriguing, and seems at least as plausible as other explanations of the ordering of Dante's Paradiso. It also indeed makes it probable that Dante read the Celestial Hierarchy with the commentary of Albert.

The study ends with an excursus on mirrors, showing that in the medieval tradition the metaphorical use of the term speculum or specchio to refer to angels and the blessed seems to derive from Pseudo-Dionysius, and in literary texts is absorbed almost uniquely by the Paradiso. (Recourse to the online Opera del Vocabolario Italiano would have expedited the survey.) An epilogue gives a fascinating account of the development of these orders of angels, born from a few misinterpreted passages of Saint Paul.


University of Notre Dame
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Author:Moevs, Christian
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2007
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