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  • Dante’s Convivio, Book 1: Metaphor, Exile, Epochē
  • Laurence E. Hooper (bio)

Convivio 1: Metaphor, Opacity, Exile1

The Convivio ‘Banquet,’ an unfinished compilation of wide-ranging vernacular commentaries to Dante’s own lyrics begun after the poet’s exile from Florence in 1302, is the only one of his works whose title is also a metaphor.2 Despite Dante’s prominent decision to name his work after a banquet of knowledge, surprisingly little has been written about the Convivio’s deployment of the figure of metaphor.3 What work there is has noted the presence of extended images in the text, beginning with the titular banquet, and has read these as a systematic [End Page S86] rhetorical supplement to its intellectual content.4 This assumption that observations about the Convivio’s form ought to be subordinated to its doctrine clearly depends on the predominant reading of the work as philosophical—a “trattat[o] teoric[o]” ‘theoretical tractate’ (Vasoli xi).5 But the metaphors the poet uses often seem as alienating as they are expository: take the cryptic declaration at the end of Convivio’s first book that the “bread” to which Dante likens his prose commentary will be “luce nuova, sole nuovo, lo quale surgerà là dove l’usato tramonterà” ‘a new light, a new sun which shall rise where the old sun shall set’ (1.13.12; Lansing 32). Dante makes no effort to explain how his bread might give off light even though this metaphor defines the Convivio’s project of auto-exegesis.6

I prefer to read the Convivio not as a purely philosophical work but as one that uses the versatile form of the commentary to syncretize diverse disciplines (Barański, “Poesia”; Mazzucchi 67–70).7 Philosophy is certainly one of these disciplines; the importance of metaphor suggests that rhetoric is another; theology and poetry are also clearly present. Within this syncretic structure, I shall suggest that Dante’s metaphors create opacities that signal to us the agency of its author—a process that resembles what we now call literature (Ascoli, “Allegory” 135; Mazzucchi 35–36).8

In Convivio 1, Dante defends his work from charges of difficulty by casting its obscurity as a justifiable response to his shaming experience of banishment.9 In effect, the newly excluded Dante carefully [End Page S87] defines his unorthodox authorship in terms of his exile. We find the exile most openly and consistently evoked in the first tractate, which is also the location where Dante defines the work’s project, its author figure and the relationship between the two, using metaphor in each case. This essay will therefore concentrate on this opening book, which I see as part of a series of works from the early exile years that circumscribe the poet’s suffering within an internal conceptual space (Steinberg 95–123).10 In this post-exilic series, Dante makes a virtue of his wanderings by arguing that his novel literary practices are dependent on his broader experience after his exclusion.11 The effect is to relate the irreducible vicissitudes of history to the problematic aspects of his authorship, which take on an equally irreducible aspect (Fenzi 25–29, 33–34).

“Intendo fare un generale convivio”: The Entrance of Metaphor

The first tractate famously opens on the extended metaphor of the banquet, which promises that Dante’s expositions of his poems will lead the reader to knowledge. The primary image of work-as-feast intertwines with another metaphor of people-as-flock.

E io adunque, che non seggio alla beata mensa, ma, fuggito della pastura del vulgo, a’ piedi di coloro che seggiono ricolgo di quello che da loro cade . . . per li miseri alcuna cosa ho riservata, la quale alli occhi loro, già è più tempo, ho dimostrata; e in ciò li ho fatti maggiormente vogliosi. Per che ora volendo loro apparecchiare, intendo fare un generale convivio di ciò ch’i’ ho loro mostrato. . . . Vegna qua qualunque è per cura familiare o civile nella umana fame rimaso . . . e questi prendano la mia vivanda col pane che la farà loro e gustare e patire.

Therefore I (who do not sit at the blessed table, but, having fled the pasture of the...