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Inferno IX: Passing within City Walls and Beneath the "Velame de li versi strani"

From: Mediaevalia
Volume 33, 2012
pp. 79-100 | 10.1353/mdi.2012.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

O voi ch'avete li 'ntelletti sani,
mirate la dottrina che s'asconde
sotto il velame de li versi strani.

—Inferno, IX 61-63

Dentro lì entrammo sanza'alcuna guerra;
e io, ch'avea di riguardar disio
la condizion che tal fortezza serra,
com'io fui dentro, l'occhio intorno invio;
e veggio ad ogne man grande campagna,
piena di duolo e di tormento rio.

Inferno, IX 106-11

Dante Alighieri is an urban poet par excellence. His biography revolves around his relationship with the city of Florence, and that relationship underlies the whole of his work. From the very beginning of his literary career, the time of the Vita Nova, he resisted the temptations of the bucolic world—even when the city became a forbidden object for him, and he had to travel along the path of political exile and geographical displacement. Because Dante wrote the greater portion of his work outside its walls, Florence often figures in his literary production as a shadow projected outside its urban territory. Despite this absence, Florence in particular, and cities in general, are the environments that structure Dante's oeuvre.

The Divine Comedy—in which the expressions città dolente (woeful city) and the city of God refer to Hell and the Empyrean respectivelyis the Dantesque work whose internal organization and scenarios are most directly connected to the urban environment. It is also the work that explicitly discloses Dante's reactions to an unjust exile in a few well-known tercets in which the poet pours out his unrestrained rage at his hometown and its inhabitants. The emotional state conveyed by these tercets remains conjectural in its nuances and predictable in its main content: Dante rages at his former fellow citizens who forced him into expatriation. However, the passages that bespeak the relationship between the poet and Florence also contain important indications regarding Dante's reflections on the function of cities and urban communities. It is especially when the lines convey his nostalgia for a city that he can view only as an outcast that Florence becomes the potential embodiment of cohesive civic values, as well as the place that elicits Dante's projections of a human community on earth, a design intimately connected to his literary enterprise.

My argument proceeds from symbolic depictions of cities in the Divine Comedy and focuses on how the urban environments and the practices produced within them become rhetorical tools. Dante incorporated into his text urban practices that function not only within the virtual geographical space of his poem, but also on the levels of the pilgrim's allegorical journey and the poet's writing. In my reading of a passage in the fifth circle of the Inferno, Dante employs urban practices related to city walls in order to make the notion of the city's edges active in his text, and crucial to the progress of the pilgrim. Via the passage from the first cantica in which he depicts the pilgrim dealing with the walls of the infernal city of Dis, I conclude that Dante integrated a feature of the medieval urban environment into the Divine Comedy, namely, the transformative effect produced by the passage through the walls. Furthermore, in that sequence from the Inferno, Dante addresses the more general notion that margins are key tools of transformation not only in spatial but also in cultural processing.

In terms of strictly urban practices in the Middle Ages, passing through the gates of a walled city was an action bearing definite consequences. The wall, in addition to being a means of protection, was also a delimitation of a portion of territory. By surrounding an enclosure against an indistinct background, walls delineated two discrete spaces, an inside and an outside. A sharp contrast defined this juxtaposition: the inside was a ruled and safe space; the outside, unmarked ground. Hence, walls worked as a boundary between culture and nature. To exit the city therefore meant venturing into a lawless space. By contrast, to pass through the gate and into the city granted social status and civic identity. Serfs trying to escape from their dismal backgrounds, as well as other representatives of the fringe community produced by the dissolving...

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