Dante and Islamic Culture
Dante and Islamic Culture
Abstract and Keywords
Sets forth methodological principles for continued work on the relationship between Dante and Islam; namely, interdiscursivity, intertextuality, and the claim of direct source material. Examples of each possibility are provided by examining first a generally understood Muhammadan prohibition to go beyond the Straits of Gibraltar as cultural context for Dante’s Ulysses, then the particular use of the Summa alexandrinorum (based on Arabic translations of Aristotle) as a source for Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and finally correlations between the Comedy and the Liber scale machometi that suggest a direct line of transmission. In each case, attention is given to the material transmission of ideas and texts. This effort reaffirms (and reinterprets) the belief of Ernst Robert Curtius that the paramount task remaining for Dante scholars is to study methodically his relationship to the Latin Middle Ages.
Keywords: Dante Alighieri, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, Liber scale machometi
Given the stimulating proximity and well-known contacts between the Catholic and Islamic worlds during the Middle Ages and during Dante’s own lifetime, a particular methodological rigor is needed to evaluate Arabic philosophical, mystical, and eschatological texts as sources for Dante’s writing.
At the end of the thirteenth century, the relations between these two worlds grew closer in intriguing ways after a lively period in which Arabic works were translated into Latin. A great expansion of two large cultural centers—Sicily and Toledo (with its renowned Toledan school of translators)—also took place at this time. Sicily and Toledo were, not coincidentally, dominated by two exceptional political figures of the Duecento: Frederick II, king of Sicily and emperor (1194–1250), and Alfonso X the Wise, king of Castile and León (1221–1284), who ascended to the throne in 1252, two years after the death of Frederick II. Both were linked from their infancy to the Islamic world and were therefore influenced by Islamic culture in their linguistic and cultural upbringing. History has given to both of these rulers great credit for cultural exchanges between the two worlds, as Michele Amari (1806–1889) and Francesco Gabrieli (1904–1996) highlighted.
Naturally, Dante did not know Arabic; thus the mediation of Latin or Old French was indispensable for him, and the observation of Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956) on this topic is still pertinent for Dante scholars and for Arab scholars interested in Dante: “Before Dante scholarship lies the great task of methodically studying Dante’s relation to the Latin Middle Ages.”1 To study that relationship means also investigating (p.46) the methods of Dante’s approach to the Arabic-Latin historical and cultural context of his time.
Three methodological possibilities arise. The first is that processes of interdiscursivity existed during Dante’s era. That is to say, there was circulation between the cultural worlds through which a fact, a piece of information, a technical term, and so forth, could become part of a common heritage precisely as a consequence of interpretation through interdiscursivity. In such a case, it is impossible (not to say dangerous) to single out a direct source for a shared trope. The second possibility is when there are phenomena that can be termed intertextual, by which it can occur that a text x offers a structural model to a text y, as it were, a model by analogy. This analogical relationship does not mean text x is necessarily the source of y—that the author of y had read or had at hand the text of x: the author might have read a summary that gave the structure of the work or had heard an oral summary, as at times happened in several works mentioned by Miguel Asín Palacios (1871–1944).2 The third possibility is that an Arabic text is, in a scholar’s opinion, the direct source of one of Dante’s works. In this case, the literary derivation from the Arabic text must be supported on the grounds of literary history: a translation of the Arabic text into Latin or Old French or a familiarity with it in Dante’s literary context. Then one must prove that a correspondence is not merely thematic but rather formal; furthermore, the correspondence must be extensive enough not to be coincidental but isomorphic by design.3
From these methodological premises, I would like to offer (within the limited scope of this paper) some examples of these three possible connections between Dante’s De vulgari eloquentia, Convivio, or Commedia and one or more Arabic texts. I will begin with two examples—quite different in terms of their relative weight but both visible in the Ulysses episode in Inferno 26—of Arabic influences that are traceable to the historical reality of interdiscursivity. Dante writes of the passage through the Pillars of Hercules:
- Io e’ compagni eravam vecchi e tardi
- quando venimmo a quella foce stretta
- dov’Ercule segnò li suoi riguardi
- acciò che l’uom più oltre non si metta
- I and my companions were old and slow
- when we came to that narrow outlet
- (p.47) where Hercules set up his markers
- for men to heed and never pass beyond
As I have shown elsewhere,4 the taboo on passing through the Pillars of Hercules is absent from Greek and Latin tradition; the most ancient references go back to Arab and Spanish geographies, again confirming the striking relationship between the Christian and Arab worlds at the outset.5 Guido delle Colonne, in his thirteenth-century Historia destructionis Troiae (History of the Destruction of Troy), clearly states that this prohibition is Arabic in origin: “Dicitur Sarracenica lingua Saphy” (“It is called Saphy in the Arabic tongue”),6 using a term that is found again in the form Saufì in the anonymous Mare amoroso (Sea of Love):
- E mai non finirei d’andar per mare
- infin ch’i’ mi vedrei oltre quel braccio
- che fie chiamato il braccio di Saufì
- c’ha scritto in su la man “Nimo ci passi,”
- per ciò che di qua mai non torna chi di là passa
- And I shall never cease to wander over the sea
- until I see for myself that arm
- that has been called the arm of Saphy,
- that has written on its hand “None shall pass,”
- through which the one who passes never returns.7
This instance of one text recalling another has been quoted because of the importance of the statue of Muḥammad, which announced the prohibition against going forward by pointing his left arm in the direction of the strait, a gesture that according to Arab geographers meant “Return to the place from which you have come,” or in other words, “Do not go forward.”8 Various interdiscursive historical facts relating to the Arabic noun Saphy are thus behind the verses of the Ulysses episode. However, to search for a direct source would here be senseless.
The second interdiscursive case is more ambiguous and invites more speculation. The noted Italianist Mario Fubini (1900–1977) wrote a wonderful essay on the episode of Ulysses as a sublime product of Dante’s pure imagination.9 Certainly the narration of the rash, Promethean, and fascinating event is the work of Dante’s own genius.10 To be precise, however, it should be noted that the theme of Ulysses’s shipwreck, (p.48) related in the prophecy of Tiresias in Book 11 of the Odyssey (“thanatos ex halos,” “death by water,” that is, by the sea) is not Dante’s invention; rather, it gives signs of itself as a centuries-old topos in drama, already appearing as such in Aeschylus and Sophocles.11 Although it is tempting to view the inherently fascinating qualities of the text as entirely original, we must ask, is it all purely Dante’s invention?
Three aspects of the story are notable upon first reading it: the connection between the character and the Pillars of Hercules; the sea voyage from Campania to the Pillars; and the shipwreck. These first two develop through interdiscursive topoi. The first, besides having within it an echo of the saphy, or prohibition, reminds us of Strabo (60 BCE–20 CE), who in the third book of the Geographica (Geography), dedicated to Iberia, describes (relating to the Greek sources of Posidonius of Rhodes, Artemidorus of Ephesus, and Asclepiades of Myrleia) the city of Odysseia, with its temple of Athena, on the mountainous slopes above the Straits of Gibraltar. A great Byzantine writer of the twelfth century, Eustathius of Thessalonica, also speaks of an Odysseia in Turdetania, above the Pillars of Hercules, in his commentaries on the Odyssey and on Dionysius’s Periegesis (Voyage). And we should not forget that Servius in his commentary to Vergil (Aen. 6.107) writes that Ulysses would have arrived at the most distant part of the ocean.
If, therefore, the theme of Ulysses’s voyage beyond the Pillars of Hercules already existed in classical and Byzantine cultures, we can add to it the theme of the via Heracleia—the route by sea that traces the Mediterranean islands from Cumae, in Campania (Dante’s Gaeta, “prima che sì Enëa la nomasse” “before Aeneas had so named it” [Inf. 26.93]), to the Pillars of Hercules. An interesting point made by Ramón Menéndez Pidal is that this maritime passage was also used by Arab geographers and traders, as it was the least dangerous in regard to the winds.12
We now arrive at our third theme, shipwreck, which offers dramatic evidence of itself over the centuries. Strabo, in the Geographica, lingers over one of his sources, Asclepiades of Myrleia (modern Murdanya).13 Asclepiades, who came from Myrleia on the Bosphorus to Odysseia in order to teach Greek grammar there, began to make his way around the area, writing his Periegesis. In this text, Asclepiades notes that in the temple dedicated to Athena (the protective goddess of Ulysses) at Odysseia, one could see affixed to the walls shields and spurs from Ulysses’s ship, souvenirs of a failed undertaking. It is likely that a faint (p.49) ghost of this shipwreck theme survives in the Arabic-Spanish prohibition against passing through the Pillars—the prohibition that Ulysses calls into question while in Dante’s company. In fact, in the vernacular translation of the Historia destructionis Troiae we read “quello luogo ove le predette colonne d’Ercole sono fitte, s’appella in lingua Saracina Saphis, ed è il luogo ove più oltre non si puote ire per tornare” (“that place where the aforesaid Pillars of Hercules are erected is called in the Saracen tongue Saphis, and it is the place beyond which one may never pass in order to return again”).14 “Per tornare” alludes to a punitive shipwreck that awaits those who would risk such a venture, and we find this again in the first Canto of Purgatorio (Pur. 1.131–32 “che mai non vide navicar sue acque / omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto” “that never saw any man navigate its waters / who afterwards had experience of return”). To the myth of the shipwreck one can also add the myth of a long and unpredictable journey, since the failed expedition of the brothers Vandino and Ugolino Vivaldi, Genoese explorers who voyaged beyond the Straits of Gibraltar in 1291, gave rise to a certain amazement and fear.
This theme of the Arabic Saphy, then, followed by the punitive shipwreck, is conveyed by the Arabic tradition, as highlighted by many events: the construction of the gilded statue of Muḥammad with its menacing gesture; the Norse tradition by which the Bay of Cadiz is known as Karlsá (“water of the man,” i.e., of the statue); and the Norwegian account of the voyage of Saint Olaf, who arrived from the outside at the Pillars of Hercules by sea along the coast of France, only to have to turn back owing to the injunction of the statue of Muḥammad (in the dream).15 It is upon this exciting theme and the traditional fear of a long voyage “per l’alto mare aperto” (Inf. 26.100 “on the deep open sea”) that Dante constructs the allegorical significance of Ulysses’s shipwreck which is contrasted through references to his own text to the beginnings of the three canticles.16
Equally significant is a comparison with Purgatorio 1.130–33:
- Venimmo poi in sul lito diserto
- che mai non vide navicar sue acque
- omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto.
- Quivi mi cinse sì com’ altrui piacque
This is a further example of self-referentiality in the Ulysses episode, with an even more conspicuous indication in the repetition of “com’ altrui piacque” (“as pleased another”), which indicates two extraordinary experiences, one negative and one positive. God himself sends Ulysses’s boat to the bottom of the sea (Inf. 26.141 “e la prora ire in giù, com’altrui piacque” “and plunged the prow below, as pleased another”) as punishment for his presumptuous curiositas (curiosity), whereas Dante is encircled by “l’umile pianta” (Purg. 1.135 “the humble plant”), symbolizing the humility of the quest.
The Ulyssean theme of the voyage opens the first two canticles, and it is also found in the third, at the moment of the ascension into the heavens. In Canto 2 of Paradiso, the “piccioletta barca” (Par. 2.1 “little bark”) corresponds to the “compagna picciola” (“small company”) of Inferno 26; then, the phrase of Ulysses, “ma misi me per l’alto mare aperto” (Inf. 26.100 “But I set out on the deep open sea”), corresponds to “tornate a riveder li vostri liti: / non vi mettete in pelago” (Par. 2.4–5 “turn back again to see little shores: / Do not commit yourselves to the ocean”), where “pelago” indicates “l’alto mare aperto.” Both Ulysses and Dante the pilgrim take to waters that “già mai non si corse” (Par. 2.7 “were never coursed before”), Ulysses by violating saphy (here meaning “prohibition”), Dante by a privilege granted by Minerva, Apollo, and the Muses.
The desire to know for the sake of knowing brings the shipwreck and the mad flight, while the Dantesque “sete del deïforme”—the thirst for God’s form (Par. 2.20)—guides Beatrice and Dante upward on their journey-flight. In both cases the metaphoric sea closes up according to the untroubled laws of nature, as at Inferno 26.142 (“infin che ’l mar fu sopra noi richiuso” “until the sea closed over us”) and Paradiso 2.15 (“dinanzi a l’acqua che ritorna eguale” “ahead of the water that turns smooth again”). Dante infuses the three situations with an even more precise allegorical significance (which I do not examine here) that signals an exemplum of the intellectual voyage, making Ulysses—as first put forth by Jurij Lotman (1922–1993)—“the original double of Dante,”17 the negative hero of a journey that is undertaken in Dante’s time by those who wish to be sapientes mundi, the radical Aristotelians, who Augustine would have said to be shipwrecked before reaching ad (p.51) philosophiae portum (De beata vita 1.1 “the harbor of philosophy”). We are thus looking at Dante’s brilliant transformation of the topos of the intellectual shipwreck. Indeed, Benvenuto da Imola noticed that Dante has told the story of Ulysses “propter aliquod propositum ostendendum” (“so as to make evident some purpose”).
A curious and in some ways ambiguous piece of evidence is worth noting, which is handed down in an as yet unedited thirteenth-century text concerning Trojan material, part of the Tercera parte (Third Part) of the General estoria (General History) of Alfonso X.18 According to this history, Ulysses,19 having founded the city of Ulixbona (Lisbon) and having been struck by a sense of longing and nostalgia for his dear wife Penelope and his son Telemachus, whom he had not seen for twenty-five years, told his men to prepare themselves for the trip back to their native land. They left with favorable winds and arrived at Ithaca, having avoided the enchantress Circe. One night, Ulysses had in a dream a strange vision, in which a beautiful woman appeared to him with the signs of death that boded sadness and lamentation to him. Ulysses says that the woman’s hand showed him “the scabbard of a lance that had impressed upon it two fishes of the sea, which is salty water, and she then curtly blocked my view.”
It is not clear how to elucidate the elements in this vision of death in the Castilian text nor how to interpret them, like the seers consulted by Ulysses, as news of patricide. For us, the important detail is that the imaginative process created through the long journey of Ulysses continued to construct itself around the theme of curiositas/ death. The Castilian tale lies outside discussions of Dante’s sources, but, like other discoveries found in the fantastic texts of the geographers of that age, it does not allow us to refute categorically the possibility that from behind such interdiscursivity there could one day emerge a precise source. No specific source has emerged: it is only within the realm of possibility—the paths of reading are as infinite as those of Providence itself.
I would like to move from the first process of relations between two cultures, namely, interdiscursivity, to the interaction between two or more texts, which is to say intertextuality. Here I will consider the episode recounting the Tower of Babel in De vulgari eloquentia 2.8.6–7, which is clearly constructed upon Genesis 2:34, around the two periods of construction (the ascent) and confusion (the descent). In the first, Dante not only describes the activities of a thirteenth-century (p.52) construction site but he also lists several officia (offices) and ministeria (ministries), using a structure offered him by Aeneid 1.423–25 (the construction of Carthage).
It is the second phase of the story, Dante’s description of the confusion of languages as a social reality, which is interesting for our purposes. It is through social commerce that the members of professional groupings, those who belong to a certain status or guild, are able to understand one another: for them “eadem lingua remansit” (DVE 1.7.7 “a common language remained”). It is not the same for individuals. Nimrod, the great inventor, is alone in speaking a language that is otherwise unknown to mankind (Inf. 31.80–81). This version of the confusio linguarum (confusion of languages), which renders it as an allegoria in factis (allegory of reality—historical allegory) of the medieval city (particularly Florence, whose citizens in Dante’s Epistle 6 are defined as “alteri Babilonii” “other Babylonians”), is not seen in Petrus Comestor, Vincent of Beauvais, or even in the numerous texts used by Arno Borst in Der Turmbau von Babel (The Tower of Babel).20
There is, however, such a version of the tale in Alfonso X’s General estoria, 1.43b.24. As shown by Hans-Josef Niederehe, Alfonso begins by elaborating on the versions of Comestor and Vincent of Beauvais, amplifying them with a spate of construction images. These images center on the inability to communicate among individuals,21 as one calls for pitch and is given water, while another calls for water and is given tools.
In writing an essay on the Tower of Babel in 1978,22 I asked myself whether Dante knew this text or had heard someone speak of it or whether the two texts had a common, but still unknown, Latin source. Here I would favor the significant intermediation between ArabicCastilian culture and Florentine culture by Brunetto Latini. Brunetto was not only in Toledo as a Florentine ambassador in 1261, but he also remained in contact with Spain during the time of the French (that is, until 1266) as a personal friend of Alfonso X and of several translators of the Toledan school. The notion of what I call Brunetto’s European importance is gaining ground, thanks in large part to Spanish Romance philologists, as I have tried to demonstrate.23 Proof of the movement of ideas, first from the Toledo school to Brunetto and then through a period of Arabic culture onward to Dante, is doubtlessly provided by the Convivio.
The philosophical basis needed to understand Dante’s cultural activity in the Convivio is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Which Latin (p.53) translation did Dante use in order to read this work? There was an excellent translation from the Greek by Robert Grosseteste called either Translatio Lincolniensis (The Translation of Lincoln, as the author was the bishop of Lincoln) or Liber ethicorum (Book of Ethics). This text was used by Albert the Great as well as by Thomas Aquinas. However, Dante did not use this text, except when it is conveyed through Albert the Great’s commentary. Rather, he used as a rule a translation from Arabic, the Translatio Alexandrina (Translation of Alexandria), also known as the Summa Alexandrinorum (Epitome of the Alexandrians). This text is the Latin translation of an Arabic-Alexandrian compendium, attributed in the manuscripts as ab Hermanno Teutonico (by Herman the German). Herman, of the Toledan school, finished his translation on April 8, 1244. In Toledo it was at times common to use Jews as mediators for Arabic texts, but Herman consulted only Arabs in completing his translations, as can be inferred from several particular linguistic characteristics, including proper names.24
It was Brunetto Latini who brought the Translatio Alexandrina to Dante’s attention. He had the Latin text in his possession in Toledo (according to various testimonies), and he used it in his Tresor (Treasury). Dante, following Brunetto’s lead, regularly used the Arabic text in the first and fourth essays of the Convivio, and at times he looked directly to the French of the Tresor, as I have shown.25 Brunetto was inspired to write the Tresor itself, as an encyclopedia of knowledge, by the Setenario (The Septenary) of Alfonso X, a work interwoven with Arabic-Castilian elements that was actually begun by Alfonso’s father, Ferdinand III, and explicitly driven by the word tesoro (“treasure”) in the text.26 The Convivio thus offers a brilliant example of intertextuality between a Greek text by Aristotle, an Arabic compendium, its translation into Latin, the French Tresor by Brunetto, and the Convivio, in which both the Latin translation of the Arabic text and the French translation in the Tresor would be translated into Italian.
One thing to consider here is that a relationship of genre among texts can also reveal something else—something that surpasses the idea of a source. It can illuminate the text from a new angle, a point of view that has a different orientation. It is not by chance that before “intertextuality” gained currency one finds Lotman’s phrase “cultural textuality.” This term presupposes that the text is a reality not only organized through the signs of a language but also one that situates itself at various levels of a culture with possible temporal and spatial expansions (p.54) available to it. The distance between the “text of departure” (Nicomachean Ethics) and the “texts of arrival” (the Arabic compendium, Tresor, Convivio) becomes more stimulating when intertextuality is involved, whether from the viewpoint of history or from the viewpoint of literature.
I would now like to consider our third possibility—a true Arabic source for the Commedia. To begin, it should be noted that many themes found in the three canticles of the Commedia correspond to Arabic texts, which are not, however, direct sources. These include the voyages of Muḥammad into the afterlife (Inferno and Paradise—in Islam there is no Purgatory); the hierarchy of the heavens and the structure of the infernal circles; the concept of contrapasso (“counterpenalty”) in the punishment of sinners and the materiality of some of these punishments; the earthly desires of the dead (themes discussed by Avicenna27 and al-Ghazali [1058–1111] that are later taken up by Giles of Rome and the Oxford school, which is alluded to in Purgatorio 25.105–8); Jacob’s ladder as a pathway to the heavens; the metaphysics of light; gigantic animals and ruined trees; along with other motifs and themes found, for example, in the Escatología musulmana of Asín Palacios.28
These thematic correspondences, given their broadly diffused presence, cannot be constrained within a discourse of direct sources but only of possible intertextuality, unless it can also be verified using the conditions listed above of a text translated into Latin or Old French, a historical context that can justify Dante’s knowledge of the work, and similarities that are not only thematic but also formal and wide-ranging enough not to be coincidental but instead to be isomorphic. With this in mind one can point without any doubt to the Liber scale Machometi (or with the variation of the third word as Mahometti, as it is called in the Parisian codex, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS lat. 6064), as a source for such features as the city of Dis and the Malebolge in Hell as represented in Dante’s Inferno. This text, ultimately of Arabic origin, was discovered not, as is often written, by Enrico Cerulli, but rather by Ugo Monneret de Villard.29 I believe it is also possible to confirm that in the Paradiso there are analogical intertextual relationships, which will be shown later.
The first question is obvious: How did Dante come to know the Liber scale Machometi (Book of the Ladder of Muḥammad)? Clues are not in short supply. The text, which was composed in Arabic in the (p.55) eighth century, was first translated into Castilian, the primary language according to the directives in place at the Toledo school of Alfonso X.30 It was translated by a Jew named Abraham Alfaquím, Alfonso’s physician. Still at the Toledo school, Bonaventura of Siena translated the Liber from Castilian into Latin and Old French in 1264. Bonaventura was one of the exiled Tuscans who had taken refuge at Alfonso’s court, where he acted as notary. During his time there he also became acquainted with Brunetto Latini, who arrived in Toledo between 1259 and 1260. Antoine Cabaton writes, “It is absolutely impossible that, at this half Arabic, half Christian court … Brunetto Latini neither saw nor came to know the translators of Toledo: that in his travels from Toledo to Seville, where the king resided alternately, he did not question them.”31 Our earlier discussion on Brunetto’s Tresor seems to have strong confirmation. It is also natural to think that Brunetto would have passed these bits of knowledge on to Dante.
We know32 that in one category of codices this text was included as a pendant to the Collectio Toletana, a famous collection of Islamic texts that were translated and disseminated throughout Europe thanks to the promptings of Peter the Venerable, abbot of Cluny.33 In this context it is not at all strange that the Liber scale Machometi was referenced by Fazio degli Uberti in his Dittamondo (Words of the World, 1350–60), a fact already noted by Alessandro d’Ancona (1835–1914) and subsequently by Cerulli.34 There was also an ample summary of the Liber in Castilian that was attributed to Saint Pedro Pascual, an ecclesiastic of the Mercedarian order. In the library of the Università Cattolica of Milan there is a Bibliografia Mercedaria (Bibliography of the Mercedarians), in the second volume of which there is a discussion of this summary with the title of Libro del parayso y del infierno (Book of Heaven and Hell), which was given between 1288 and 1292 by Pascual to Pope Nicholas IV—predecessor of Boniface VIII. Having read this text, I was able to deduce that it was not definitely a source for Dante,35 although it could have been for the fifteenth-century Salentine monk Roberto Caracciolo, author of Lo specchio della fede (The Mirror of Faith).
Reading the Liber scale Machometi in Latin, one is convinced that it was a direct source for Dante because of its descriptions of the Muslim Hell, which must have struck Dante for their bloody and violent concreteness. From the Paradise of the Liber, however, Dante appears to have been more selective in adapting certain elements, as there is a (p.56) hyperrealistic aspect to life in the heavens in the Liber (castles for the blessed, litters, beautiful women, and so forth) that is completely foreign to Dantesque (and Christian) ideology.
Let us begin with the Hell of the Liber, which reveals correspondences with Dante’s vision that are not only thematic but also specifically formal, wide-ranging, and isomorphic; that is to say, the similarities are realized within the same formal or semantic structure in each text. We see, for example, the parallel between the habitatio dyaboli (dwelling place of the devil) and the City of Dis. This begins from the description of a gigantic enchained demon, which will then pass into the Commedia as the giant Ephialtes: compare “cathenis ferreis ligaverunt unam manuum ante et alteram retro” (Liber par. 149 “they bound one of his hands in front and the other in back with iron chains”) with “el tenea socinto / dinanzi l’altro e dietro il braccio destro, / d’una catena” (Inf. 31.86–88 “he had his right arm shackled behind / and the other in front, / by a chain”).
Arriving at the habitatio dyaboli, we see in the Liber (par. 150) that the dwelling place of the devil is a castrum (the fortezza of Inf. 9.108); it is girded by the valla (Dante’s “alte fosse / che vallan quella terra sconsolata” “the deep trenches / that are the moats of that doleful city” at Inf. 8.77–78). There are then “muri, turres, moenia et domus omnes” (“walls, towers, battlements, and whole houses”) that are “de igne valde nigro, qui ardet continuo in se ipso” (“of entirely black fire, which burns constantly within itself”). At Inferno 8.70–75, Dante speaks of the (strangely Arabic) “meschite” (“mosques”) “vermiglie come se di foco uscite / fossero” (“red as if they had come out of the fire”), adding “Il foco etterno / ch’entro l’affoca le dimostra rosse” (“The eternal fire / that blazes there within makes them show red”), and, at line 78, “Le mura mi parean che ferro fosse” (“The walls seemed to me to be of iron”)—an image perhaps prompted by the black fire of the Liber. In this castrum there is “quaedam porta, per quam vadit homo ad infernum magnum” (“a certain door, through which one goes to the great inferno”). We should also remember that Phlegyas cries “usciteci … qui è l’intrata” (Inf. 8.81 “Out with you here! This is the entrance”). Further, the Liber says that the doors through which the demons enter and exit are seven in number; in his turn Dante writes “chiuser le porte que’ nostri avversari” (Inf. 8.115 “These our adversaries shut the gates”).
The seventh, eighth, and ninth bolgias of the Commedia have significant thematic and formal similarities with the fourth and fifth terraces (p.57) of the Liber as well as with a final listing of sins that begins with the “seminatori di discordia,” the sowers of discord. In Dante’s seventh bolgia, there are thieves who, as everyone knows, turn into serpents before being quickly turned back into men so that the punishment can continue. The same occurs in the Liber (par. 140), where it is said that God makes the damned return to human form in order to punish them all over again. Paragraph 143 explains that serpents have a venom that immediately burns the damned, reducing them to ashes (“destrueret et reduceret in cinerem”). Compare Dante’s description of Vanni Fucci:
- Né O sì tosto mai né I si scrisse,
- com’el s’accese e arse, e cener tutto
- convenne che cascando divenisse
- Never was o or i written so quickly
- as he caught fire and burned, and turned
- completely into ashes as he fell.
It seems to me that the Islamic text should be added to the list of sources headed by Lucan (cited for the serpents of Libya at De bello civili 9.711–14, 9.719–21]). Staying with the topic of the thief-serpent duo, Dante adds:
- Poi s’appiccar, come di calda cera
- fossero stati, e mischiar lor colore,
- né l’un né l’altro già parea quel ch’era
- Then, as if they were made of hot wax,
- they stuck together and mixed their colors,
- and neither the one nor the other appeared as before.
The Liber, having described the fusion of man and serpent, concludes: “ita quod ipsi liquefiunt, prout liquefit ante faciem ignis cera” (Liber par. 142 “just as wax melts before a flame, so [it is] that they turn liquid”). Dante grabs this idea and with a striking flight of the imagination transforms it into lofty poetry.
In Dante’s eighth bolgia, which houses the fraudulent, we see “di tante fiamme tutta risplendea / l’ottava bolgia” (Inf. 26.31–32 “with so many flames / the eighth pit was all agleam”). In the Liber, the same thing occurs in the fifth region, but here the flame is generated by a (p.58) piece of brimstone that is aflame and attached to the neck of the damned: “Lapis et peccator faciunt in simul flammam unam” (Liber par. 146 “the stone and sinner produce at one and the same time one flame”), which Dante seems to have used with the aid of a metaphor, “e ogne fiamma un peccatore invola” (Inf. 26.42 “and each steals away a sinner”). The Liber later specifies that, according to the Qu’ran (sura 14.51), “cooperiuntur igne facies peccatorum” (Liber par. 146 “the faces of sinners are covered by fire”), which could be related to a line in Dante, “catun si fascia di quel ch’elli è inceso” (Inf. 26.48 “each swathes himself with that which burns him”).
Our final example, which is possibly the most suggestive of Dante’s playful project of reformulation, is seen in the ninth bolgia with the sowers of discord. Dante seems to be amusing himself in Inferno 28 as he puts into Muḥammad’s mouth the words that are spoken by Gabriel in the Liber. Gabriel speaks to Muḥammad about those “qui verba seminant ut mittant discordiam inter gentes” (Liber par. 199 “who sow words to cause discord among people”). The appearance of the metaphor of seminare (to sow) is certainly not a casual coincidence (compare Inf. 28.35 “seminator di scandolo e di scisma,” “sowers of scandal and of schism”). As often occurs, a certain feature, such as a metaphor, is able to generate thematic and formal patterns through Dante’s exceptional imagination. In the Liber, sinners find their lips being cut off or their tongues being pulled out with fiery pincers (“forcipibus igneis”); in Dante’s eighth bolgia, there is a veritable pandemic of slashing and cutting. Yet there is even more. Immediately afterward in the Liber, Muḥammad reflects on the contrapasso principle: “Vidi peccatores omnes qui, prout erant singulorum peccata, ita diverso modo suppliciis torquebantur” (Liber par. 201 “I saw all the sinners who, just as their sins were individuals’, so in varying fashion they were tortured by punishments”). It is unlikely to be a coincidence then that in the ninth bolgia, at the conclusion of the canto, Dante has Bertran de Born (ca. 1150–1215) say, “Così si osserva in me lo contrapasso” (Inf. 28.142 “This is the retribution observed in me”), the only example of Dante’s use of this particular word.
There is no contradiction in the fact that above it was also posited that the idea of the contrapasso was also among the intertextual connections found in Asín Palacios’s Escatología musulmana. The example given here, from the Liber (that is, a particular source that abounds in correspondences), shows that the Arabic text will indicate the direction (p.59) of the research, either on the path of intertextuality or on the more gainful path of the direct source.
The relationship between the Muslim Paradise of the Liber and the Christian Heaven of the Commedia is more complex than what we have seen above. Dante was attracted by several particular types of intellectual speculation on the metaphysics of light that were current during his time. And in the examination of the metaphysics of light, he entered into a sort of intellectual competition with these speculations, generating new relationships between the spheres of his own creativity and those of the mystics. Thomas Aquinas had already considered the ideas of the Arab mystics particularly important and declared them as such. Dante offers in the third treatise of the Convivio more proof that he used Bartolomeo da Bologna’s philosophical-theological writings on light, presented in six parts with the title Tractatus de luce (Treatise on Light). Bartolomeo was a friar and professor who succeeded Matteo d’Acquasparta in the school of theology in the second half of the thirteenth century and was magister Provinciae Bononiensis (master of the Province of Bologna) from 1285 to 1289. Among other things, this Tractatus, which was certainly used by Dante for its semantic distinctions in terms of light (lux, lumen, radius, splendor), is filled with citations of Arabic works—Avicenna, Averroës, Albacen, Alfarabi, and others.36
Concordances of Dante’s Paradiso reveal seventy-three instances of luce, sixty-nine of lume, and seventeen of splendore, all corresponding to the precepts laid out in the Tractatus de luce. It is certain that the lyric inspiration of the Liber scale Machometi and Dante’s Paradiso did not filter through from Bartolomeo da Bologna’s treatise. However, it must be recognized that the viewpoint of intertextuality provides for us another type of expertise that results in an elaboration of the situation, providing new implications and possibilities. This viewpoint does not exclude that the eight Heavens of the Liber could have offered analogical models for three basic situations that deal with the presence of light in the heavenly afterlife, situations that are connected to one another both in the Liber and in the Commedia.
The first situation could be described as a potentiality of the metaphysics of light, through which God, in the Liber, is light, referred to as claritas; light, or claritas, is blessedness, and as such it connotes the figures and objects of paradise by defining their celestial nature, which is splendor and blessedness. In the Liber we read, “Claritas ibi existens tanta est et tam magna quam claritas solis talis est respectu claritatis (p.60) illius qualis est claritas unius stelle respectu claritatis solaris” (“the brightness present there is so great and powerful that the brightness of the sun in comparison with its brightness is as the brightness of a star in comparison with the brightness of the sun”);37 Abraham “erat eciam totus claritatis circumvolutus vestibus, que plus quam sol in estate splendore lucebant” (“was entirely enveloped in clothes of brightness, which shone with splendor more than the sun does in summer”).38 As a leitmotif, the pure claritas reappears as it envelops the angels and the blessed. We find an analogous spirit and a similar meaning for light in Dante, for example in the first hundred lines of Paradiso 26: something here seems to go beyond the typical concordance between Islamic and Christian mysticism that has been investigated by specialists in the field.39 It seems really to be intertextuality.
The second situation is that the divine force of claritas results for a mortal in loss of sight. In the Liber, upon the appearance of God, Muḥammad exclaims: “Et tunc Deus abstulit visum ab oculis et ipsum reddidit ita cordi quod eum corde vidi, oculis autem minime” (Liber par. 125 “And then God took sight from my eyes and restored it to my heart, so that I saw him with my heart but not at all with my eyes”). This blindness recurs with Dante: “lo viso spento” (Par. 26.1 “my quenched sight”), and “la vista in te smarrita e non defunta” (Par. 26.9 “the sight in you is confounded, not destroyed”). The idea of the substitution of the heart for the eyes is similar:
- … quasi tutta cessa
- mia visïone, e ancor mi distilla
- nel core il dolce che nacque da essa
- … my vision almost
- wholly fades away, yet in my heart
- the sweetness born of it is still distilled.
The notion expressed in paragraph 4 of the Liber in regard to the “indirect” vision also seems to point to a possible influence on Dante’s metaphysics of light: the eyes of man can grasp the splendor of divine light, but only indirectly. That is to say, the eyes must fall on things or figures that are illuminated by this light, as a lumen secundarium (Liber par. 377 “secondary light”). This phenomenon is perceptible in the continuous reflection of God’s light as seen through Beatrice’s eyes, fixed upon Dante.
(p.61) Francesco Mazzoni examined the reflective eyes of Beatrice in a Lectura Dantis Scaligera (1963). In Paradiso 18.8–12, the poet claims to renounce any further description of the light that he sees reflected in Beatrice’s eyes because his mind (that is, his memory) is not capable of relating such an ineffable experience without divine intervention. The drama of human inadequacy and divine ineffability is certainly present in the Liber scale Machometi, but we should not forget that there is also another certain mystic source used by Dante, namely, Richard of Saint Victor’s Benjamin Major.40
The third situation connected with the claritas of the Liber is the circular movement of the luminous angelic spheres, which in turn produces music and song. Dante describes this sound as the “dolce sinfonia di paradiso” (Par. 21.59 “the sweet symphony of Paradise”). These spheres are described between God and the angels of the curtains and circles in the eighth heaven of the Liber: “Et circa eosdem circulos erat angelorum multitudo quam maxima qui dicuntur Cherubin” (Liber par. 48 “And around the same spheres was the very great host of angels who are called Cherubim”). Only God knows their number, the Liber continues. The cherubim “laudabant Deum et nihil aliud faciebant. … Eundo et veniendo numquam Deum laudare cessabant” (Liber par. 49 “praised God and did nothing else. … Coming and going they never ceased to praise God”). They also sing in the seventh heaven, where, according to Muḥammad, “nullus eorum assimilatur alii, neque in forma neque in loquela neque in aliquo membrorum” (Liber par. 58 “none of them is like another, either in shape, speech, or any of the limbs”)—comparable to Dante’s description of “più di mille angeli festanti, / ciascuno distinto di fulgore e d’arte” (Par. 31.131–32 “more than a thousand angels making festival / each one distinct in effulgence and in ministry”).
As for the circles created between God and the angels, the “circulata melodia” (“circulating melody”) of the archangel Gabriel also comes to mind, as he, in Paradiso 23, moves about the Virgin Mary, singing, “io sono amore angelico, che giro” (“I am the angelic love that whirls”); he will continue to circle the Virgin until she finally ascends to the Empyrean. Consider too the flames that encircled Peter Damian:
- A questa voce vid’io più fiammelle
- di grado in grado scendere e girarsi,
- e ogne giro le facea più belle
- (p.62) At these words I saw more flamelets
- from step to step descending and whirling
- and each whirl made them more beautiful.
We could also point to the “semicirculi” (“semicircles”) seen in Canto 32. I have discussed elsewhere other features that strongly connect the Liber and the Commedia.41 To conclude, I will limit myself to a few examples of structural features of the Liber that allow Dante to construct an analogical model (that is thus intertextual), notwithstanding the abyss that separates the two texts and their authors. At the beginning of Muḥammad’s journey, three voices attempt to stop him, recalling Dante’s own three beasts. Muḥammad goes up a ladder from the earth to the Heaven of the Moon, which is full of luminous angels, the same ladder belonging to Jacob that brings Dante from the seventh terrace to the earthly Paradise and which seems to Dante “d’angeli sì carca” (Par. 22.72 “laden with angels”). There are also several intriguing similarities between paragraphs 96–109 of the Liber and Dante’s earthly Paradise—a great garden with an enormous tree, from whose roots spring two rivers. The blessed drink of one of these rivers and are purified; they drink of the other and receive the grace of God. Notwithstanding the biblical resonances of these two rivers,42 the reader thinks of the Lethe and the Eunoe.
There is also a procession in the Liber (par. 102) with camels covered with coats that seem to be of red and white silk. They have golden chains about their necks, with precious stones that shimmer like candles. Upon their arrival, God on his throne reveals his face: “Discoperuit pulcherrimam faciem suam … et se ostendit eis” (Liber par. 13 “He uncovered his most beautiful face … and showed himself to them”). This brings to mind Beatrice’s raising of her white veil to reveal herself in the Purgatorio: “quando nell’aere aperto ti solvesti” (Purg. 31.145 “when in the free air you did disclose yourselff”).
This list could be longer, but every list is only a means subordinated to a goal; it is best to eschew the excessive boldness of the scholar who wishes to catch a glimpse of the splendor of a direct source in the Liber scale Machometi. But the text certainly generated flashes within Dante’s imagination, leaps of fantasy, and playful poetics such as calling the houses of the city of Dis “meschite”—the same name given to the temples of the Saracens. To be a complete and direct source, as (p.63) some would like, does not seem to be the proper end for the popularizing Liber scale Machometi. Rather, Dante knew many texts and was able to blend them together within the framework of his singular imagination, giving to each its proper role in the creative process. In order to preserve and be faithful to this creative drive, scholars must continue to create for themselves doubts, distinctions, and clarifying principles.
(1.) Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series 36 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990), 379.
(2.) Miguel Asín Palacios, Dante y el Islam (Madrid: Voluntad, 1927), trans. Harold Sunderland as Islam and the Divine Comedy (London: J. Murray, 1926). [For analysis of the impact that Asín Palacios’s book had on subsequent scholarship, see Vicente Cantarino, “Dante and Islam: History and Analysis of a Controversy,” in this volume.]
(3.) [This interpretive strategy is turned on its head in Daniela Boccassini, “Falconry as a Transmutative Art: Dante, Frederick II, and Islam,” in this volume.]
(4.) Maria Corti, Percorsi dell’ invenzione: Il Linguaggio poetico e Dante (Turin: Einaudi, 1993), 122–26.
(5.) On the continual contact between the Arabs and the Spanish, see Juan Vernet, La Cultura hispanoárabe en Oriente y Occidente (Barcelona: Ariel, 1978).
(6.) Book 2 (folio 4v), ed. Nathaniel Edward Griffin (Cambridge, Mass.: Mediaeval Academy of America, 1936), 10.
(7.) 228–32, in Il gatto lupesco e Il mare amoroso, ed. Annamaria Carrega, Orsatti 7 (Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 2000), 74.
(8.) On the structure of the monument, see Reinhart Pieter Anne Dozy, Recherches sur l’ histoire et la littérature de l’Espagne pendant le moyen âge, 3rd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1881), 2:300–314; and René Basset, “L’aqueduc et la statue de Cadix,” La Tradition 6 (1892): 97. Upon a stone square was placed a second square, connected to the first by copper pilasters between 60 and 100 cubits in height. The sides of the second, (p.275) upper square were one-third the size of the first one. Above this was a triangular construction that tapered upward. On this rested a block of white marble, upon which stood the brass statue, 6 cubits in height, of Muḥammad, with a long beard and a gilded mantle over his shoulders. His left arm was stretched out in the direction of the strait, signifying for the Arab geographers, “No one shall proceed further,” or “return to the place from which you have come.”
(9.) Mario Fubini, “Il peccato di Ulisse,” Belfagor 2 (1947): 461–75; reprinted in Mario Fubini, Il peccaato di Ulisse e altri scritti danteschi (Milan: R. Ricciardi, 1966), 1–36.
(10.) Maria Corti, “Le metafore della navigazione, del volo e della lingua di fuoco nell’episodio di Ulisse (‘Inferno’ XXVI),” in Miscellanea di studi in onore di A. Roncaglia (Modena: Mucchi, 1989), 2:479–91.
(12.) Ramón Menéndez Pidal, Historia de España (Madrid: Espasa-Calpe, 1956–).
(13.) [Ed.: At this point Corti’s Italian text expands with the following remark about Myrleia:]more noted today for the trial of Ocalan [Abdullah “Apo” Öcalan (1948–), founding leader of the Kurdish party Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), has been held since his capture in 1999 under solitary confinement as the only prisoner on İmralı Island in Turkey] than for the armistice reached between the Greeks and the Turks in 1922.
(14.) For similar wording of the same passage, see Libro de la destructione de Troya: Volgarizzamento napoletano trecentesco da Guido delle Colonne, ed. Nicola De Blasi, I Volgari d’Italia 3 (Rome: Bonacci, 1986).
(15.) [Ed.: The source of information for the last two statements appears to be Snorri Sturluson, Óláfs saga Helga, chapter 18, in Snorri, Heimskringla, ed. Bjarni Að2/24/2015albjarnarson, Íslenzk fornrit 26–28, 3 vols. (Reykjavík: Hið Íslenzka fornritafélag, 1941–1951), 2: 25. With his ship in a place named Karlsá, Olaf is on the verge of sailing through the Straits of Gibraltar, when he has a dream in which he is visited by “merkiligr [variant: göfugligr] maðr ok þekkiligr ok þó ógurligr” (“a remarkable [glorious] and handsome man and yet awful”). This figure tells him to go back to Norway, where he and his descendants will be the kings of Norway.]
(16.) In addition, see Inferno 1.26 (“lo passo / che non lasciò già mai persona viva” “the pass / that never left anyone alive”), Inferno 26.132 (p.276) (“poi che ’ntrati eravam ne l’alto passo” “since we had entered on the passage of the deep”). One also observes the rhymes within the text at Inferno 1, lines 26, 28, and 30 (passo, lasso, basso) and Inferno 26, lines 128, 130, and 132 (basso, passo, casso).
(17.) Jurij Lotman, Testo e contesto (Rome: Laterza, 1980), 96.
(18.) Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS 7563, folios 106r–107v.
(19.) For the transcription of the unedited text, I am very thankful to Prof. Giuseppe Mazzocchi, who chose the best manuscript from the fifteenth century (as the original is lost) and photographed it for me in Madrid, and Prof. Paolo Pintacuda, who rendered the Castilian text legible for me. Both are members of the Iberian section of the Dipartimento di Lingue e Letterature Straniere Moderne at the Università di Pavia.
(20.) Arno Borst, Der Turmbau von Babel: Geschichte der Meinungen über Ursprung und Vielfalt der Sprachen und Völker, 4 vols. in 6 books (Stuttgart: A. Hiersemann, 1957–1963).
(21.) Hans-Josef Niederehe, Die Sprachauffassung Alfons des Weisen: Studien zur Sprach-und Wissenschaftsgeschichte (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1975), 64–68.
(22.) Maria Corti, “Dante e la Torre di Babele,” in Maria Corti, Il viaggio testuale: Le ideologie e le strutture semiotiche (Turin: Einaudi, 1978), 243–57.
(24.) See Georges-Henri Luquet, “Hermann l’Allemand,” Revue de l’ histoire des religions 44 (1901): 407–22; and Jaime Ferreiro Alemparte, “Hermann el Alemán traductor del siglo XIII en Toledo,” Hispania sacra 35 (1983): 9–56. Alemparte provides the unusual statement that Brunetto would have begun his Tresor in Toledo on September 15, 1260. He comments as well that “no sólo conoció la obra de Hermann, sino que pudo conocer también personalmente al autor” “not only knew the work of Hermann, but also could have gotten to know the author personally.”
(25.) Maria Corti, La felicità mentale: Nuove prospettive per Cavalcanti e Dante (Turin: Einaudi, 1983), 96–109.
(26.) [For this text, see Alfonso el Sabio: Setenario, ed. Kenneth H. Vanderford (Buenos Aires: Instituto de filología, 1945; repr., Barcelona: Editorial Crítica, 1984).]
(27.) [On Avicenna’s views on the dead, see Brenda Deen Schildgen, “Philosophers, Theologians, and the Islamic Legacy in Dante,” in this volume.] (p.277)
(28.) The materials connected with this polemic (which began in 1919) are gathered most conveniently in Miguel Asín Palacios, La Escatología musulmana en la Divina Comedia: Seguida de la Historia y crítica de una polémica, 4th ed., Libros Hiperión 79 (Madrid: Hiperión, 1984).
(29.) Ugo Monneret de Villard, Lo studio dell’Islam in Europa nel XII e nel XIII secolo, Studi e testi 110 (Vatican: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1944). Five years after Monneret de Villard’s article appeared, Cerulli published his Il “Libro della scala” e la questione delle fonti arabo-spagnole della Divina Commedia, Studi e testi 150 (Vatican: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, 1949).
(30.) Gonzalo Menéndez Pidal, “Como trabajaron las escuelas Alfonsíes,” Nueva revista de filología hispánica 5 (1951): 363–80.
(31.) Antoine Cabaton, “La ‘Divine Comédie’ et l’Islam,” Revue de l’ histoire des religions 81 (1920): 351. “Il est absolument impossible qu’à cette cour mi-chrétienne mi-arabe … Brunetto Latini n’ait pas vu, connu les traducteurs Tolédans: qu’allant de Tolède à Seville, où résidait tour à tour le roi, il ne les ait pas interrogés.”
(32.) I refer here to the research of Anna Longoni, a scholar from Pavia who is preparing a Latin edition of the Liber scale Machometi for the “Bembo” collection from Guanda. [Ed.: The edition has not appeared.]
(33.) Of the Collectio, containing the Qur’an, three Arabic texts (De doctrina, De generatione, one Cronica) as well as texts of rebuttal (the Apologia of the pseudo-Kindi, letters exchanged between an Arab Christian and a Muslim, two Summas in favor of Christianity), there are roughly thirty specimens, of which only nine are complete. Within two of these can be found the two manuscripts of the Liber scale Machometi.
(34.) [Cerulli, Il “Libro della scala” (1949) 355–57, 504–6.]
(35.) Maria Corti, Percorsi dell’ invenzione, 147–63.
(36.) [On the impact of Averroës (among others) on Latin Christendom at this time, see Schildgen, “Philosophers, Theologians, and the Islamic Legacy in Dante,” in this volume.]
(39.) Medieval Islamic mysticism and the entire Sufi movement developed a metaphysics of light and of the Light of Lights that causes one to lose all memory as one approaches it. This is discussed in further detail by al-Ghazali. Regarding Sufism, see Mario Satz, Umbría lumbre: San Juan de la Cruz y la sabiduría secreta en la Kábala y el Sufismo (p.278) (Madrid: Hiparion, 1991), 153–88, where the Book of the Brightness (Bahir), a very important text on Islamic mysticism, is also cited. Luce López Baralt, San Juan de la Cruz y el Islam: Estudio sobre las filiaciones semíticas de su literatura mística (México: Universidad de Puerto RicoRecinto de Río Piedras, 1985) gives a panoramic view of Arab mystical literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and also discusses the mystical language of Ibn al-‘Arabī and Ibn al-Fārid al-Dīn and the symbolic and esoteric characteristics of light, suggesting a far-flung influence of Oriental Christian monasticism. There would then also be a double-sided process: from Christianity to Islam and then from Islamic mysticism to Christian mysticism (Meister Eckehart). I am very thankful to Giovanni Caravaggi for various bibliographical suggestions.
(40.) Manuela Colombo, Dai mistici a Dante: Il linguaggio dell’ ineffabilità (Florence: La Nuova Italia, 1987), 61–71.
(42.) [Corti may have in mind the four rivers of Paradise (Gen. 2:10–14) or, if she is thinking of two in particular, the Tigris and Euphrates.]