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ISCAD Annotated Bibliographies

ISCAD Annotated Bibliographies provide a research and teaching tool which currently does not exist.

Without aiming at being exhaustive, these annotated bibliographies offer a commented selection of bibliographical records, as well as a quick overview of the state of the literature about selected critical categories in Dante studies. As such, they constitute a helpful starting point when exploring a new topic, a guide to navigate the ocean of Dante studies and a resource when building a syllabus on Dante, making it easier to integrate critical studies and to develop specific modules on the history of Dante scholarship.

These bibliographies are compiled and edited by doctoral and post-doctoral students as well as junior scholars, working as Research Assistants under the supervision of E. Brilli at the University of Toronto, thanks to a variety the bibliographical resources, including the International Dante Bibliography edited by the Società Dantesca Italiana and the Dante Society of America.

When using these bibliographies, please remember to acknowledge the work of these students and scholars. Thanks!





S. Gaspari (Toronto, Italian Studies)

Last update: February 2019

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Main References to Authorship in Dante’s Works

  • De vulgari eloquentia II.viii.4:

Circa hoc considerandum est quod cantio dupliciter accipi potest. Uno modo, secundum quod fabricatur ab autore suo; et sic est actio; et secundum istum modum Virgilius, primo Eneidorum, dicit Arma virumque cano. Alio modo, secundum quod fabricata profertur, vel ab auctore, vel ab alio quicunque sit, sive cum soni modulatione proferatur, sive non; et sic est passio. Nam tunc agitur: modo vero agere videtur in alium; et sic, tunc alicuius actio, modo quoque passio alicuius videtur. Et quia prius agitur ipsa quam agat, magis — immo prorsus — denominari videtur ab eo quod agitur et est actio alicuius, quam ab eo quod agit in alios. Signum autem huius est quod nunquam dicimus, Hec est cantio Petri eo quod ipsam proferat, sed eo quod fabricaverit illam

[And on this point it must be taken into account that cantio has a double meaning: one usage refers to something created by an author, so that there is action – and this is the sense in which Virgil uses the word in the first book of the Aeneid, when he writes ‘arma virumque canò’ [I sing of arms and a man]; the other refers to the occasions on which this creation is performed, either by the author or by someone else, whoever it may be, with or without a musical accompaniment – and in this sense it is passive. For on such occasions the canzone itself acts upon someone or something, whereas in the former case it is acted upon; and so in one case it appears as an action carried out by someone, in the other as an action perceived by someone. And because it is acted upon before it acts in its turn, the argument seems plausible, indeed convincing, that it takes its name from the fact that it is acted upon, and is somebody’s action, rather than from the fact that it acts upon others. The proof of this is the fact that we never say ‘that’s Peter’s song’ when referring to something Peter has performed, but only to something he has written (transl. by Steven Botterill)].

  • Convivio

È dunque da sapere che “autoritade” non è altro che “atto d’autore”. Questo vocabulo, cioè “autore”, sanza quella terza lettera C, può discendere da due principii: l’uno si è uno verbo molto lasciato dall’uso in gramatica, che significa tanto quanto “legare parole”, cioè “auieo”. E chi ben guarda lui, nella sua prima voce apertamente vedrà che elli stesso lo dimostra, ché solo di legame di parole è fatto, cioè di sole cinque vocali, che sono anima e legame d’ogni parole, e composto d’esse per modo volubile, a figurare imagine di legame.

[It should be known, then, that “authority” is nothing but “the pronouncement of an author.” This word, namely “auctor” without the third letter c, has two possible sources of derivation. One is a verb that has very much fallen out of use in Latin and which signifies more or less “to tie words together,” that is, “auieo.” Anyone who studies it carefully in its first form will observe that it displays its own meaning, for it is made up only of the ties of words, that is, of the five vowels alone, which are the soul and tie of every word, and is composed of them in a different order, so as to portray the image of a tie (transl. by Richard Lansing)].

  • Monarchia I.v.3:

Asserit enim ibi venerabilis eius autoritas quod, quando aliqua plura ordinantur ad unum, oportet unum eorum regulare seu regere, alia vero regulari seu regi; quod quidem non solum gloriosum nomen autoris facit esse credendum, sed ratio inductiva.

[Now this revered authority states in that work that when a number of things are ordered to a single end, one of them must guide or direct, and the others be guided or directed; and it is not only the authors illustrious name which requires us to believe this, but inductive reasoning as well (transl. by Prue Shaw)].

  • Monarchia II.i .7:

Veritas autem questionis patere potest non solum lumine rationis humane, sed etiam radio divine auctoritatis: que duo cum simul ad unum concurrunt, celum et terram simul assentire necesse est.

[The truth of the matter can be revealed not only by the light of human reason but also by the radiance of divine authority; when these two are in agreement, heaven and earth must of necessity both give their assent (transl. by Prue Shaw)].

  • Monarchia III.iii.16:

Quod si traditiones Ecclesie post Ecclesiam sunt, ut declaratum est, necesse est ut non Ecclesie a traditionibus, sed ab Ecclesia traditionibus accedat auctoritas. Hiique solas traditiones habentes ab hoc — ut dicebatur — gignasio excludendi sunt: oportet enim, hanc veritatem venantes, ex hiis ex quibus Ecclesie manat auctoritas investigando procedere.

[Now if the traditions of the church come after the church, as has been shown, it must be the case that the church does not derive its authority from the traditions, but that the traditions derive their authority from the church. And so those who rely only on traditions must be excluded from the arena, as we said; for those who seek to grasp this truth must conduct their investigation by starting from those things from which the church’s authority comes (transl. by Prue Shaw)].


Annotated Bibliography


Auerbach, Erich, Dante, Poet of the Secular World [1929]New York: New York Review Books, 2007).

Auerbach’s seminal work in Dante studies begins with a historical introduction tracing the roots of Provençal poetry and its arrival on the Italian peninsula, and setting up this literary movement as a precursor to Dante’s own powerfully authoritative voice within the group of stilnovisti that formed in Italy in the latter half of the 13th century. In Chapter 2, he develops a comparison of Dante’s early works with those of Guinizelli and Cavalcanti. Through a careful analysis of Dante’s direct apostrophes to the reader we see how his singular auctoritas as poet of the dolce stil nuovo sets him apart from his friends, even at the beginning of his career. The subsequent chapters deal almost entirely with the Commedia and its subject, structure, and presentation, respectively.



Barolini, Teodolinda, Dante’s Poets: Textuality and Truth in the ‘Commedia’ (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984).

Barolini’s work is divided into three sections in which she analyzes Dante’s poetic journey from the early lyrics, through his vernacular forebears, and finally to his Classical models (Virgil and Statius for the most part). The discussion of authority is, for the most part, developed in the third section. Here Barolini points out that while Virgil (as master and author) is the only one of Dante’s sources who can be even remotely compared to true auctoritas (God), he inevitably falls short. Only Dante with his poema sacro is able to, in his turn, overtake Virgil as the scribe who writes what Love dictates (which corresponds to the claim to divine poetic authority).


Picone, Michelangelo, “La Vita nuova fra autobiografia e tipologia,” Dante e le forme dell’allegoresi Ed. Michelangelo Picone (Ravenna: Longo Editore, 1987): 59-69.

Picone examines the history of critical approaches to the Vita Nova, both as an evolution of the authorial “I” in medieval thought and as laic Bildungsroman and autobiographical record of Dante’s life. He views the work as characterized by the opposition or contrast of two temporal Dantes (nunc and tunc) resulting in an authorial “I” that is much further conceptually from the Italian love poets than it is from the auctor of the final voyage of Christianity, the Commedia.


Botterill, Steven, “‘Quae Non Licet Homini Loqui’: The Ineffability of Mystical Experience in Paradiso I and the Epistle to Can Grande,” Modern Language Review LXXXIII.2 (1988): 332-41.

A concise and careful examination of the original passages from six auctores (three biblical and three extra-biblical) that the author of the Epistle to Can Grande appropriates in order to develop his exegesis of Paradiso I. Botterill shows that the topos of the ineffable nature of the vision of God, repeated over and over in the biblical sources (Paul, Ezekiel and Matthew) is, in fact, an impetus to speak of that experience. He shows that in these auctores, the speaking out of the experience often occurs after some time, and despite the ineffability of said experience, because it is important and necessary for others to know of it. The other three auctores (Richard of St Victor, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Augustine) follow a similar pattern in their discussion of ineffability and the need to speak out regardless. Botterill argues that the author of the Epistle refers to these writers in order to justify the attempt of going beyond the unspeakable-ness of the Pilgrim’s experience in Paradiso, effectively authorizing Dante to narrate the visio Dei with the same authority as previous mystics and scholars.


Hollander, Robert, “Dante’s Commedia and the Classical Tradition: The Case of Virgil,” The “Divine Comedy” and the Encyclopedia of Arts and Sciences: Acta of the International Dante Symposium November 13-16, 1983. Ed. Giuseppe Di Scipio and Aldo Scaglione (Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Pub. Co., 1988): 15­-26.

A brief look at the way in which Dante “de-authorizes” Virgil by close-reading several passages from the Inferno. Hollander points out that the epithets of maestro and autore applied to the pagan writer are both true and misleading within the progressive evolution of Dante-personaggio from follower to leader in the Commedia. According to Hollander, Dante’s reading of Virgil’s pagan oeuvre into a journey of a man (Aeneas) “compared to Paul’s ascent to heaven, [and] regarded as being specifically sanctioned by God” is in reality an authoritative rewriting of Dante’s most central Classical figure in the work.


Ascoli, Albert Russel, “The Vowels of Authority (Dante’s Convivio,” Discourses of Authority in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ed. Kevin Brownlee and Walter Stephens (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989): 23-46. See Ascoli 2008.


Higgins, David H., “Biblical Authority and the Authority of the Divina Commedia,” and “Charism and the Author of The Divina Commedia,Dante and the Bible: An Introduction (Bristol: University of Bristol Press, 1992): 18-29 and 30-37.

In chapter 2, with Bruno Nardi’s Dante e la cultura medievale for a starting point, Higgins shows how the association of Dante with St. Paul allows Dante to take on a kind of prophetic authority himself. While not fully equal to the Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical writers, Higgins asks whether Dante can be seen as a slightly less-authoritative version of these auctores. He argues that Dante’s own status as auctor is firmly rooted in the Commedia’s claim of authenticity as a prophecy or vision of the afterlife, a quality shared by Biblical texts. Continuing the discussion in chapter 3, Higgins applies C.S. Lewis’ statement that one cannot approach the Bible as a mere literary text to the Commedia, arguing that the authority with which Dante speaks is rooted in religious inspiration. This chapter asks how precisely Dante understood inspiration in the biblical sense, and whether his poem was composed according to a similar pattern. Higgins concludes that Dante’s concept of authority in the Commedia is as closely related to inspiration by a higher power – whether of the Holy Spirit or of Love – as theologians claim for the Bible itself, with himself as the instrument of a greater “Author”.


Stillinger, Thomas C., The Song of Troilus: Lyric Authority in the Medieval Book (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Stillinger analyzes the definition of what he calls “lyric authority” through Dante’s Vita Nova, Boccaccio’s Filostrato, and Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. In chapter 1 he scrutinizes the authority of these three medieval texts by applying St. Bonaventure’s distinction of the four modes of writing – scriptor, compilator, commentator, and auctor. Chapters 2 and 3 (and parts of 4) are dedicated to Dante’s construction of an authoritative voice within the Vita Nova by combining lyric and narrative temporalities, and a comparison with the Filostrato’s own formation of authority. This analysis excludes any discussion of the evolution of that authority in the Commedia, and briefly considers the Convivio.


Ascoli, Albert Russel, “The Unfinished Author: Dante’s Rhetoric of Authority in Convivio and De vulgari eloquentia,” The Cambridge Companion to Dante. Ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993): 45-66. See Ascoli 2008.


Kimmelman, Burt, “Alterity and History,” and “The Poet as Text, the Text as Name,” The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of Modern Literary Persona (New York: Lang, 1996).

The introductory chapter traces what Kimmelman calls the “poetics of authorship” through the later Middle Ages, by examining authors such as Guillem IX, Marcabru, Chaucer and Langland as well as Dante, who is the partial focus of chapters 1 and 3. Dante’s justifications for speaking of oneself laid out in the Convivio are a herald for the narrator created in the Commedia, which Kimmelman sees as a vital beginning for the trope of medieval authorship. He also stresses the act of naming (both himself and others) as an integral part of Dante’s strategy in establishing his authorial voice, an argument which he further elaborates in Chapter 3. Here, Kimmelman focuses on the Commedia and its textual dynamic of the doubled Dante – both character and poet, bearing his own name. This overt relationship to the historical Dante’s life and authorial voice is regarded as a pivotal moment in the medieval world. He also closely examines the varied poetic imagery that Dante uses within the Commedia to speak of the self, of knowledge and of epistemology, and the roots of these concepts in Augustine and Aquinas, underlining that the authority of these medieval authorities is passed down through Dante’s use of their arguments within his work.


Ascoli, Albert Russel, “Access to Authority: Dante in the Epistle to Cangrande,” Seminario Dantesco Internazionale: Atti del primo convegno tenutosi al Chauncey Conference Center, Princeton, October 21-23 1994. Ed. Zygmunt G. Barański (Florence: Casa Editrice Le Lettere, 1997): 310-52. See Ascoli 2008.


Botterill, Steven, “Dante and the Authority of Poetic Language,” Dante: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Amilcare A. Iannucci (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997): 167-80.

Botterill again takes up the question of Dante’s authority as one founded in the author’s literary appropriations along with religious beliefs. In this essay, he examines passages from the Commedia in detail, to refute the position of scholars who take the “ineffability-topos” and the limits of human language to mean that the Commedia’s inherent project is destined for inevitable failure. Botterill’s argument is that Dante’s own authorizing voice (which creates many neologisms within the poem and especially in Paradiso) gives hope and purpose to the work’s intended aim of describing that which cannot be described with mere language. “When the Christian poet speaks in the name of God, […] the result is the creation of a truly sacred eloquence.” (179)


Hollander, Robert, “Canto II. Dante’s Authority,” Lectura Dantis: Inferno: A Canto-by-Canto Commentary. Ed. Allen Mandelbaum, Charles Ross, and Anthony Oldcorn (Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998): 25-35.

The first section of Hollander’s brief but crucial reading of Inferno II is dedicated to a parsing of the invocation in lines 7-9, and a discussion of whether alto ingegno and mente are two definitions for the same thing, or are separate entities invoked by the Poet (Hollander accepts this second conclusion). The rest of the essay analyzes the canto in order to determine that it is Dante to whom the auctoritas ultimately belongs, and not his maestro and autore, Virgil. By a close reading of this second canto Hollander argues that Dante’s aim is to establish his own poetic authority over Virgil.


Hollander, Robert, “Dante as Uzzah? (Purg. X 57, and Ep. XI 9-12),” Sotto il segno di Dante. Scritti in onore di Francesco Mazzoni (1998): 143-51.

Starting from the assumption that Dante set himself up as a new scriba Dei, Hollander analyzes Purg. X, 57 and Epistle XI, 9-12 in detail, asking whether Dante is a scribe of God in the form of a new David, or whether his self-authorization makes him another Uzzah, punished by God for presuming too much. The conclusion is that Dante, as usual, manages to (just barely) escape the role of heretical poet by, as Hollander puts it, “Dante’s complex art of illusion, which allows him a proper mora role as scriba Dei” (151), despite making the reader intensely aware of the fact that no human author has any business in speaking for a higher power at the same time as he justifies that arrogance.


Hawkins, Peter S., “The Scriptural Self,” Dante’s Testaments: Essays in Scriptural Imagination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999).

In chapter 1, Hawkins examines the various Biblical personae that Dante assumes in the Monarchia and Commedia, from his strategic use of Daniel’s story to Isaiah, the raptus of St. Paul and the Psalms of David. His argument is that Dante’s authorial strategy is in fact the construction of a “scriptural self” that speaks with the authority of his Biblical predecessors, but in a new tongue and style. Hawkins also offers an overview of Dante’s spiritual formation in the studia of the Mendicant orders, Dominican and Franciscan, arguing that he came to have the Scriptural knowledge of a friar, and that his “lowly” voice becomes authorized in the Commedia by essentially preaching to his public in the name of God.



Levers, Toby, “The Image of Authorship in the Final Chapter of the Vita Nuova,” Italian Studies LVII (2002): 5-19.

Levers, closely following Stillinger’s view of the construction of authorship in the Vita Nova, sees Dante’s authorial persona as an appropriation of the authority given generally only to the Bible or authors of Classical status. Through a brief examination of Dante’s minor works, Levers shows how Dante’s narrative voice is in fact a combination of several voices that represent different aspects of authority – scribe, commentator, and glossator – and views these competing roles as the beginning of Dante’s “self-authorization.” He argues that in the final chapter of the Vita Nova, Dante becomes the figure of authority himself, revealed through the various roles he weaves together with prose and poetry: scribe, commentator, poetic subject, and, finally, “author of the entire text.” (19)


Canteins, Jean, “Les cinq voyelles d’“autorité”,” Dante: II. L’homme engagé (Milan: Arché, 2003): 123-145.

The first chapter of the second part of Jean Canteins’ second volume deals with the passage in Convivio in which Dante gives a not entirely clear explication of the relevance of the vowels in the word autore, tracing the etymology of the term to two possible etymologies. Canteins gives his own French translation of the passage in order to pinpoint the difficulties within the original text, breaking each “problematic” term (beginning with autoritade) into separate sections for a minute analysis. He shows how Dante is at pains to have the Italian autore derive from both autoritade and auieo in order to conclude that “the author is the master of language” (142).


Picone, Michelangelo, “La teoria dell’Auctoritas nella Vita nova,” Tenzone. Revista de la Asociación Complutense de Dantología VI (2005): 173-91.

Picone’s essay details the passage from autorepoeta in the VN to the autorefilosofo presented in the Convivio. By a close reading of relevant passages in each work, Picone demonstrates how the gradual movement up the hierarchical scale of auctoritas leads to the Commedia’s “poeta-vate,” the final auctor, who has received divine illumination in order to speak his experience in the afterlife.


Pacioni, Marco, “L’auctoritas poetica e il personaggio Cavalcanti nella Vita Nova,” Auctor/Actor: Lo scrittore personaggio nella letteratura italiana. Ed. Gilda Corabi and Barbara Gizzi (Rome: Bulzoni, 2006): 41-61.

Detailed analysis of the Dante-personaggio in the Vita Nova and his literary friendship (amicizia) with Guido Cavalcanti. Pacioni traces the connection between that friendship and poetic authority in the work, showing how Dante both associates himself with the rimatori of his time, and distances himself from them. The chapter deals mainly with the Vita Nova, but it also briefly traces the transformation of that friendship with Guido into the deeper and more spiritual friendship with Beatrice in the Commedia and its correspondence to divine authority, as Beatrice represents Love – a direct emanation from God, the greatest auctoritas.


Regn, Gerhard, “Double Authorship: Prophetic and Poetic Inspiration in Dante’s Paradise,” MLN 122.1 (January, 2007): 167–85.

Regn’s essay begins with the view expressed by Andrea Kablitz that Dante’s Commedia is nothing short of a Third Testament, a completion of a history of salvation by an author-prophet. In addition to this view, Regn believes that Dante’s self-authorization goes further; as he puts it, “in addition to the prophet, there is still a secular author, whose poetics is just as worldly as it stresses the artistic character of the poetic work.” (168) He concludes, through a detailed examination of various passaged in the Paradiso, that Dante’s authorship is a doubled one – he is at once the poeta theologus inspired by the Holy Spirit, and also the secular poet whose poetics are a matter of secular aesthetics as much as anything else.


Ascoli, Albert Russel, Dante and the Making of a Modern Author (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Ascoli’s important work of reference combines several of his earlier articles, turning each into one of several chapters on different aspects of Dantean authority. The introductory section also includes issues of authorship in literary criticism, as well as the history and etymology of the words relating to authority (auctor, auctoritas). Subsequent sections examine vernacular authorship in the DVE, Dante’s auto-commentary in the Vita Nova and the Convivio, as well as the notion of auctoritas in Monarchia and the temporal and spiritual conflict therein. The final section deals with the author of the Commedia and gets to the heart of Ascoli’s reading of Dante’s authorship – the creation of a modern author that we, as readers, can associate with more closely than with the “ancient” auctor represented by Virgil, among others.


Grønlie, Espen, “The Domestication of Vernacular Poetry: Measuring Authority in De vulgari eloquentia,” Dante: A Critical Reappraisal. Ed. Unn Falkeid (Oslo: Unipub – Oslo Academic Press, 2008): 145-75.

Grønlie follows Ascoli’s interpretation of authorship associated to the Italian autore and his stress on individuality. However, he supplements Ascoli’s position by focusing on the structured approach of Scholasticism that characterizes the fundamental notion of authority in the De vulgari eloquentia (specifically the last four chapters of Book I). He argues that the work’s agenda was “not only to situate the poets of Dante’s generation in an authoritative position, but to do so in a way heavily influenced by philosophical conceptualization,” (147) and examines the last four chapters of Book I in detail, breaking down specific paragraphs and terms in order to show that Dante wants to establish an older, more scholastic approach to authority than has been supposed by modern scholars.



Aleksander, Jason, “The Aporetic Ground of Revelation’s Authority in the Divine Comedy and Dante’s Demarcation and Defense of Philosophical Authority,” Essays in Medieval Studies 26 (2010): 1-14.

Aleksander examines in detail several passages from the Commedia, Monarchia and Convivio in order to demonstrate Dante’s view of the relationship between authority in the ecclesiastical and revelatory sense, and philosophical authority. His aim is to explore how Dante understood the conflictual relationship between these two forms of authority, one stemming from the spiritual half of his worldview, the other from the temporal. Aleksander argues that Dante “de-authorizes” himself in the Commedia by favouring ethics over metaphysics, leading him to conclude that the spiritual salvation that is the aim of the poema sacro is, in fact, indebted to the separation of spiritual and temporal power on earth.


Gragnolati, Manuele, “Authorship and Performance in Dante’s Vita nova,” Aspects of the performative in Medieval Culture. Ed. Manuele Gragnolati and Almut Suerbaum (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010):125-41.

Gragnolati’s essay discusses the innovative approach to authorship in the Vita nova and the way that it departs from notions of performance in the early medieval function of Occitan poetry. He proposes a new kind of auctoritas for Dante’s work, one in which “performativity” is the key to the function of the authorial voice. Drawing on Picone and Barolini’s works, Gragnolati shows that the Dante of the Vita nova is a multi-faceted auctor – one who performs an ideal spiritual journey, but also one who performs an equally relevant poetic one. He stresses the point that the “birth of this [new] author is performative and not constative […] the author emerging from the Vita nova does not pre-exist his text but is performed by it.” (141)


Federici, Theresa, “Dante’s Davidic Journey: From Sinner to God’s Scribe,” Dante’s Comedia: Theology as Poetry. Ed. Vittorio Montemaggi and Matthew Treherne (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2010): 180-209.

The majority of Federici’s essay deals with the biblical allusions to the Psalms in the Paradiso, and to a close reading of those passages in which they are reproduced. The latter sections of the essay, however, explicitly detail the way in which Dante’s own presentation of David as auctor only of the poetic form of the Psalms (their content being divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit) is fundamental to understanding his role as scriba Dei. Aligning herself with Hawkins’ view, Federici shows that Dante is putting himself forward as the “new” David, an authorial role that is just as divinely inspired as the Psalmist, but in which the poetic talent itself is, “on a strictly human level, in a sense superior to that of biblical authors.” (201)


Greenaway, James, The Differentiation of Authority: The Medieval Turn toward Existence (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2012): 154-66.

Greenaway’s book offers insight into the emergence of individual existential authority in the late medieval period. His work is focused on the discussion of political authority within the works of various authors ranging from John of Salisbury to Marsilius of Padua, and the book draws heavily on the work of E. Voegelin. Dante is casually mentioned throughout, with the exception of Chapter 5, in which his notions of political authority in the Monarchia and Paradiso are discussed in detail. Greenaway also echoes Voegelin in his conclusion that Dante’s political theory “balloons into a massive civilizational construction project of the Christian world by God himself,” (164) quite literally an authoritative deus ex machina.


Brilli, Elisa, “The Interplay between Political and Prophetic Discourse: A Reflection on Dante’s Authorship in Epistles V-VII,” Images and Words in Exile: Avignon and Italy during the First Half of the 14th Century. Ed. Elisa Brilli, Laura Fenelli and Gerhard Wolf (Florence: SISMEL – Edizioni del Galluzzo, 2015): 153-69.

Brilli’s essay examines Dante’s political letters and their departure from the ars dictaminis, by strict comparisons with similar political letters written by other artists of his time (Francesco da Barberino, for one). Brilli demonstrates how Dante’s authorial stance in the epistles lies “at the crossroads between the ars dictandi tradition and that of prophetic discourse,” (167) going against the grain of epistolary conventions because of his need to speak out for himself and, as “exul inmeritus,” without an official authorization.


Combs-Schilling, Jonathan, “Tityrus in Limbo: Figures of the Author in Dante’s Eclogues,” Dante Studies 133 (January 2015): 1-26.

Combs-Schilling examines Dante’s Eclogues – often overlooked in the poet’s repertoire – by focusing on the way in which, as he puts it, “the proem of Dante’s second eclogue represents the threshold between the poet of the Commedia and the poet after the Commedia.” (7) By a close reading of the second eclogue, Combs-Schilling demonstrates how the poet and author of the sacro poema is appropriated in this later work in the same way that Classical and early Italian lyric authors were appropriated in the Commedia. However, the Dante-personaggio (now named Tityrus, and advanced in age) is in dialogue with this auctor of a past work, allowing the Dante of the eclogues to effectively debate with himself over the notion of authority.


Mainini, Lorenzo, “Il fondamento giuridico dell’auctor romanzo: Per leggere l’incipit e la metafora del Convivio,” Dante Studies 133 (January 2015): 98-121.

As he states in his introduction, Mainini is concerned with the progression in phases of Dantean auctoritas, with special focus placed on the shift from Vita nova to Convivio. The “second” idea of authority that emerges in the latter work, as Mainini argues, is informed by not only poetic but also juridical-political themes and images. The foundation of this auctoritas is examined by means of a historiographical analysis of Dante’s works, followed by a theological and juridical overview of the scholastic and medieval disciplines he draws upon and, in a sense, de-contextualizes. Mainini concludes that this search for a new authority in the vernacular is only intelligible if we combine the scholastic, philosophical and juridical foundations that lie at the heart of Dante’s own ideals.


Todorovic, Jelena, Dante and the Dynamics of Textual Exchange: Authorship, Manuscript, Culture, and the Making of the Vita Nova (New York: Fordham, 2016).

Todorovic’s book delves into Dante’s formation as a reader and writer by examining his own cultural background and the varied influences (from Provençal lyric to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy) that helped to form his authorial stance. Chapter 2 especially examines both the poetic auctores and the tradition of the accessus ad auctores used to introduce Scriptural texts in the classroom as fundamental parts of the authorial Dante that emerges in the Vita Nova.


Ascoli, Albert Russell, “Performing Salvation in Dante’s Commedia,” Dante Studies 135 (2017): 74-106.

Ascoli takes up the question of authorship in Dante in this work that focuses on cantos 2 and 24 of the Purgatorio. He views these cantos as central to an understanding of the way Dante’s self-constructed auctoritas rests on a “‘performative’ becoming in which poet-‘singer’ enacts and embodies the substance of his composition.” (74) His reading of this canto also demonstrates how Dante’s new definition of poetic authorship in the Commedia effectively repudiates the definition previously given in De vulgari eloquentia II.8.


Studies on Dante’s Context


Spitzer, Leo, “Note on the Poetic and Empirical “I” in Medieval Authors,” Traditio 4 (1946): 414-22.

Although not strictly concerning authorship, Spitzer fundamental essay on the poetic and empirical “I” of the auctor in the medieval period is still of relevance to Dante studies, and authorial considerations in Dante generally. Spitzer discusses the composite “I” of the Pilgrim and Poet in the Commedia and underlines the individual experience of the journey as fundamental to Dante’s innovative approach as an author (compared to, for example, Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the poet is happy to merely retell the Muses’ tale).


Minnis, Alaistar J. Medieval Theory of Authorship (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1988).

J. Minnis’ indispensable work has as its primary objective the demonstration of just how important Scholasticism was for the development of literary values in the late medieval period. The auctoritas of the biblical text, through the status of the human author in biblical commentaries, moved “from the divine realm to the human.” (vii)


Autor und Autorschaft im Mittelalter. Ed. E. Andersen et alii (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1998).

Selection of twenty-two contributions that provide a general overview of the concept of authority and the role of the author in western medieval culture. There is no introduction to the volume, or to the problem of authority in modern debates by the editors. Themes considered include: a literary perspective on the relationship between word and image, the accessus ad auctores and its importance as a starting point for discussions on authority, anonymity VS naming of the author, and the relationship between authorship and the singer’s role. The volume concentrates on German authors (such as Hartmann) and anonymous epics of the medieval period, with a few references to French and Italian writers (Isidore of Seville, Dante, Petrarch), and the majority of the papers take the medieval love-song as the main topic of inquiry.


Auctor et auctoritas: Invention et conformisme dans l’écriture médievale. Ed. Michel Zimmerman (Paris: École des Chartes, 2001).

This collection of contributions is divided into seven thematic sections that include: on the correct use of authorities, auctoritates through citation and appropriation in medieval literature, and the emergence of the authorial signature in the XII and XIII centuries. The volume generally treats biblical and patristic texts, with certain papers focusing on medieval French authors; its relevance to Dante studies lies in its examination of the conception and formation of notions of auctoritas in the works of authors that Dante himself appropriates (among them St. Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas).


Autorschaft und Autorität in den romanischen Literaturen des Mittelalters. Ed. Susanne Friede and Michael Schwarze (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015): 74-95.

Contains a short essay by Nelting, David, “”…per sonare un poco in questi versi“: Dichterische Autorität und Selbstautorisierung bei Dante (“Inf.” IV – “Par.” XXXIII),” on poetic authority and self-authorization in Paradiso XIII.


How to quote this paper:

S. Gaspari, “ISCAD Annotated Bibliography: Authorship,International Seminar on Critical Approaches to Dante. Website, May 2019. Online:







Readership, Readers and Reading




E. Plesnik (Toronto, CMS)

Last update: February 2019

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Main References to Reading and Readers in Dante’s Works

Commedia: Addresses to the Reader

Gmelin (1951), Auerbach (1953) and Spitzer (1955) identify nineteen to twenty-one passages in the Commedia in which Dante interrupts his narrative with a few lines beginning “lettor”, “tu che leggi”, or a similar vocative. Lanci (1970) offers the following summary of the explicit addresses. See:

  • Inf: 8.94; 16.128; 20.19; 25.46; 34.23; 9.61-63; 22.118
  • Purg: 8.19; 9.70; 10.106; 17.1; 29.98; 31.124; 33.136
  • Par:1; 5.109; 10.7; 10.22; 13.1; 22.106.

For appeals to the reader which are implicit, see Beall (1979).

Commedia: Reading/Misreading

Dante’s concerns about the dangers of reading and potential misreading have been a popular source for discussion among scholars such as Popolizio (1980), Noakes (1983), Bennett (2008), Levine (2009), and Lombardi (2012 & 2018). See especially:

  • 5: the story of Francesca (and Paolo).
  • 6-7: the representation of Statius, as a counterexample to Francesca and Paolo.
  • 9: the representation of Cunizza da Romano as a good female reader.
Vita Nova

Discussions about Dante’s female readership and questions surrounding the social status of his readers have often been brought up specifically in relation to the Vita Nova. See especially:

  • 1: Assertion that Dante’s poetry is intended for women who have an understanding of love.
  • 6: Dante’s discussion of the origin of vernacular poetry in relation to ladies.

Zanin (2018) and Simonelli (1984) offer a comprehensive discussion of the addresses to reader made by Dante in the Convivio. See especially:

  • 1.6-7: Dante’s concerns about the limitations of his readers’ understanding.
  • 9.4-8: Dante’s justification of his decision to use the vernacular in relation to his readers, who are defined as those who possess true nobility.

See Kay (1992) for a discussion of the intended audience of the Monarchia, with reference to:

  • 3.3.3: Dante’s exclusion of decretalists, particularists and hierocrats from his intended readership.
Epistle to Cangrande Della Scala

This letter offers instructions on how to read the Commedia as a depiction of earthly and divine justice. Especially see Bennett (2008) for a discussion, with reference to:

  • 225: The inclusion of women among Dante’s readers.


Main Topics of Discussion in Dante Studies

Dante’s understanding of himself in relation to his readers

This constitutes one of the most ancient issues of discussion in the field, polarized in the arguments advanced by Auerbach (1953) and Spitzer (1955), who respectively envision:

  1. Dante as prophet and judge. See Auerbach, “Dante’s Addresses to the Reader,” 276: “The reader is not his equal. He may well repudiate Dante’s message, accuse him as a liar, a false prophet, an emissary of Hell, yet he cannot argue with him on a level of equality, he must ‘take it or leave it’ (…) At any rate, his relation to the reader, as expressed in the addresses, is inspired by this ‘poetic fiction’: Dante addresses the reader as if everything that he has to report were not only factual truth, but truth containing Divine Revelation. The reader, as envisioned by Dante (and in point of fact, Dante creates his reader), is a disciple. He is not expected to discuss or to judge, but to follow; using his own forces, but the way Dante orders him to do.”
  2. Dante as friend and equal. See Spitzer, “The Addresses to the Reader in the Commedia,” 160: “In my opinion, Dante’s discovery of a new auctorial relationship with the reader was the consequence of the nature of his vision in which the presence of the reader for whom it is told is required. Although Dante presents himself as having actually been in the Beyond and giving an accurate factual account of his travel, and although he was well aware of the originality of his treatment of his subject, he surely thought no more of himself as belonging to a superhuman category of prophets than did any truly religious poet in other ages (…) his ‘I’ is indeed (…) a poetic-didactic ‘I’ that stands vicariously for any other Christian (…).”
Dante’s readers

Dante scholars have alternatively investigated the historical reality of Dante’s intended audience or insisted on its fictive nature.

  1. The historical reality of Dante’s readers. See Simonelli, “Dante and His Public,” 48: “He believed that two of the three constituents of the social order, namely the laboratores and the oratores, had betrayed their functions. The laboratores had become arrogant to the point of representing a political danger. The oratores, on the other hand, were corrupt, ambitious and greedy for money. The only social category which was not completely without hope was that of bellatores () The Convivio was addressed to them and was intended to show them the road towards the restoration of a perfect social order.”
  2. The fictive nature of Dante’s readers. See Steinberg, “Dante’s Bookishness,” 32: “For Dante, then, female readers here represent something that the protohumanists abhor or neglect, as well as something that Dante himself, by contrast, embraces; they define Dante’s position in the literary field and his opposition to the protohumanists. Precisely what those female readers represent, however, is less than clear, because for Dante, such readers appear to be both real and imaginary. On the one hand, prominent literate women were a reality in Dante’s era (…) [But on the other hand] Dante’s classical references, cosmological speculations, and theological disquisitions in the Divine Comedy would no doubt have been rather opaque to most female members of his audience.”
Dante’s fear of being misread

A crucial topic of discussion deals with Dante’s concern that his work would be misunderstood, resulting in feelings of distrust or even hostility towards the reader.

  1. Concerns about the limitations of the reader’s understanding. See Zanin, “Dante’s Implied Reader in the ‘Convivio’, 214: “On the one hand, Dante aims at removing ‘malice from the minds’ in order to ‘instil there the light of truth’ (, IV. viii. 4). On the other hand, he states in the same book IV that he will address only ‘those intellects who are not sick through infirmity of mind or body’ but are ‘in the light of truth’ (Conv., IV. xv. 17) (…) Paradoxically, Dante seems to be promoting knowledge for all, while excluding people from it. It appears, thus, that Dante is constantly redefining his public. Rather than explaining what philosophy is and how we can learn to love it, Dante considers the condition that makes knowledge a possibility. In other words, Dante is less interested in leading the way to knowledge, than in examining its limits.”
  2. Dante’s hostility towards his readers. See Durling, “The Audience(s) of the De vulgari eloquentia and the Petrose,” 28: “The petrose can stand for the fact that at no time in his career as a writer was Dante satisfied that the reciprocity he hoped to have with his audience – that is, a relation in which his intentions and achievement, and thus his authority, would be fully understood and recognized – in fact existed. Again and again, in virtually all of his works, we see Dante expressing anger, ambivalence, sometimes downright hostility to his audience (…)”


Annotated Bibliography


Gmelin, Hermann. “Die Anrede an den Leser in der Göttlichen Komödie.” Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 30 (1951): 130-40.

Foundational work on Dante’s addresses to the reader not yet translated into Italian or English. Given the absence of addresses to the reader in classical literature, Gmelin argues that such appeals to the audience can be understood as characteristic of medieval poetry, representing a new and different relationship between the author and the reader. He identifies twenty-one explicit appeals to the reader, proposing that they are evenly distributed in the Commedia, which is to say that there are seven addresses found in each of the three books.


Auerbach, Erich. “Dante’s Addresses to the Reader.” Romance Philology 7 (1953): 268-278.

Auerbach discusses Dante’s addresses to the reader of the Commedia, which are defined as places in which a vocative noun, pronoun or imperative form are used. Comparing these addresses to other examples of apostrophe in works of medieval literary theory as well as classical poetry and oratory, Auerbach, following Gmelin, argues that no true precedents for Dante’s approach exists, making Dante’s understanding of himself in relation to his readers new and innovative. As Auerbach suggests, Dante, as a prophet relating a divine revelation, spoke to his readers as if they were his disciples, who were imagined as fellow Christians, but still subordinate to Dante in their comparative lack of knowledge of the divine. Although the emphasis which Auerbach places on Dante’s understanding of the moral inferiority of his audience will be challenged by Spitzer (1955), the didactic framework which Auerbach uses to understand Dante’s readers will largely be accepted and echoed by subsequent scholars such as Russo (1970), Beall (1979), and Simonelli (1984).


Spitzer, Leo. “The Addresses to the Reader in the Commedia.” Italica 32 (1955): 143-165.

Spitzer responds to Auerbach’s conclusions by deemphasizing the prophetic and authoritative dimensions of Dante’s explicit appeals to his reader. Instead, Spitzer suggests that the addresses to the reader functioned as aids to amplify and better convey the sensory nature of Dante’s divine revelation. In order to demonstrate this, Spitzer organizes the addresses to the reader into five main categories: “comedic,” which are concerned with capturing the reader’s attention; “artistic,” which develop the reader’s appreciation for the work; “dogmatic,” which guide the reader’s understanding; “intimate,” which evoke pathos; and finally “imaginative,” which aid in the visualization of Dante’s experiences. As Spitzer suggests, only the dogmatic addresses accord with Auerbach’s conclusions, as the majority of the addresses fall into the other categories. Accordingly, Spitzer concludes that Dante understood his readers not as his disciples, but that he imagined himself to have solidarity with them, identifying his readers as fellow Christians and suggesting that the task of understanding the divine revelation was shared between them.



Petronio, Giuseppe. “Appunti per uno studio su D. e il pubblico.” Sonderdruck aus Beiträge zur Romanischen Philologie 4 (1965); then in Id., L’autore e il pubblico, Padova: Studio Tesi, 1981: 3-18.

Petronio responds to Auerbach and Spitzer by reanalyzing Dante’s addresses to the reader, also referencing the Convivio and the Vita Nova to introduce a new perspective on these passages. He argues that Dante imagined an aristocratic and cultivated reader whose intelligence would permit him to grasp not only the literal sense of the Commedia, but its allegorical meaning as well. Dante’s decision to write in the vernacular was a result of the laicization of his culture, as he redefined his ideal public as readers who possessed a nobility of the heart and intellect, rather than the Latin-reading clerics or jurists, who Dante excluded from this new cultured society. In this sense, Petronio agrees with Spitzer’s suggestion that Dante felt a friendly solidarity with his readers, who he perceived as individuals worthy and capable of receiving his poetry. However, according to Petronio, Dante did not imagine his readership to include all Christians. His intentions were influenced by an aristocratic spirit, which implied the exclusion of certain individuals from his re-imagination of this new public of readers. For further discussion about the nature of Dante’s understanding of the nobility of the audience, see Simonelli (1984).


Lanci, Antonio. “Lettore.” In Enciclopedia Dantesca, edited by Giorgio Petrocchi. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970 (various reprints). Web:

Lanci lists around twenty places in which explicit appeals to the reader occur in the Commedia.


Russo, Vittorio. “Appello al lettore.” In Enciclopedia Dantesca, edited by Giorgio Petrocchi. Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970 (various reprints). Web:

Russo summarizes the studies of Auerbach and Spitzer. Like these scholars, Russo emphasizes the novelty of Dante’s addresses to the reader by comparing them with examples from classical poetry, but he also adds examples from medieval biblical exegesis, romances and history writing. Though Russo follows Spitzer in his suggestion that some of the addresses reveal a more charitable and brotherly dimension, he expands Auerbach’s discussion of the discipleship of the audience by underlining Dante’s constant awareness of his didactic commitment to these readers, who were imagined by him as careful listeners and constant participants. However, unlike Auerbach and Spitzer, who did not consider Dante’s historical context in their analysis, Russo suggests that the core of Dante’s innovation was in his decision to use the vernacular to treat deep doctrinal and ethical themes, appealing not only to an audience of learned scholars, but to the new cultured class of the urban society of the fourteenth century.


Beall, Chandler B. “Dante and his reader.” Forum Italicum 8 (1979): 299-343.

Whereas Auerbach and Spitzer focus their discussions on the passages in the Commedia where Dante uses a vocative noun or pronoun in order to address his reader, Beall argues that the actual number of appeals to the reader is far greater than those they considered. He proposes an alternative to Spitzer’s categorization of the addresses, preferring the following five types: remembrances, i.e. allusions to Aeneas’ recounting of the last days of Troy; references to the author’s construction of the story; admonishments to the reader; expressions of self-confidence in relation to authorial ability; and declarations of ineffability. Beall’s categorization is based on his understanding of a distinction between Dante the Pilgrim and Dante the Poet, a distinction codified after Auerbach and Spitzer (see Contini, “Dante come personaggio-poeta della Commedia,” 1957). For Beall, these appeals to the implied reader are artificial moments in which Dante’s authorial voice intrudes into the narrative, demonstrating that to a certain degree the readers of the Commedia are fictive. These readers, as they exist in Dante’s imagination, appear in the Commedia in the service of Dante the Poet and his effort to bolster his authority as a writer.



Popolizio, Stephen. “Literary Reminiscences and the Act of Reading in Inferno V.” Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 98 (1980): 19-33. Web:

Popolizio investigates the reasons for why Dante made the reading of books a major theme in Inferno 5, which is peopled with sinners affected by excessive passions. He informs his analysis with reference to Augustine’s Confessions, the Old French prose Lancelot and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, underlining the textual similarities which these works share with Inferno 5. In this way, he argues that Francesca’s act of reading is essentially an emotional and carnal experience, rather than a learning process which is rational, indicating that the canto serves as a lesson on how, and how not, to read. Accordingly, Popolizio highlights Dante’s concerns with the didactic function of literature and the hermeneutical process through which his work would be received by his readers. These observations will be further explored and elaborated by Noakes (1983), Bennett (2008), Levine (2009), and Lombardi (2012).


Ahern, John. “Binding the Book: Hermeneutics and Manuscript Production in Paradiso 33.” PMLA 97, no. 5 (1982): 800-809. Web:

Ahern discusses Dante’s reference to “scattered pages” in Paradiso 33, arguing that the phrase is self-referential and functions to comment on the nature of the Commedia itself. Suggesting that Dante died before he was able to see the entirety of the poem bound into one book, as related in Boccaccio’s Trattatello, Ahern demonstrates that the passage plays on an Augustinian understanding of human imprisonment in the temporal world, escape from which is only possible by grasping the overall coherence of the universe. In this sense, as Ahern suggests, Dante’s understanding of the hermeneutical process of his readers resembles his understanding of God’s creation of the universe: just as God’s consolidation of the universe is understood as analogous to book-binding, the reader’s perusal of the fragmentary pieces of the Commedia constitutes an effort to grasp the poem’s overall aesthetic unity. Ahern’s perspective on readership is distinct from past scholarship in its methodology, namely its lack of reference to Dante’s more formal addresses to the reader and its emphasis on the commentary and intellectual tradition surrounding Dante. As Ahern demonstrates, Dante’s understanding of his readers and the way in which he intended his work to be received was informed by the intellectual culture of his time, as well as his aspirations for himself as an author and the message which he hoped to convey.


Chiampi, James T. “Dante’s pilgrim and reader in the region of want.Stanford Italian Review 3, no. 2 (1983): 163-182.

Chiampi explores the didactic and spiritual dimensions of Dante’s attitude towards his readers in the Commedia. As he argues, Dante understood his act of writing to be a charitable deed which he carried out for the good of mankind, involving a careful disciplining and nurturing of the vision of those who were spiritually immature. Dante imagined this task to conclude with the spiritual reformation of both himself and his readers. In this respect, as Chiampi suggests, the Commedia encouraged an awakening of the soul which resembled Augustine’s journey in his Confessions and invited readers beyond carnal understanding to the spiritual. Chiampi’s situation of Dante’s attitude towards his readers within this didactic and spiritual framework will be echoed and expanded by Baur (2007) and Amtower (2000), who similarly focus on Dante’s relationship with his readers in the context of his hopes for spiritual transformation.


Noakes, Susan. “The Double Misreading of Paolo and Francesca.” Philological Quarterly 62, no. 2 (1983): 221-239.

Noakes analyzes Inferno 5 specifically with reference to the events depicted in the Vulgate cycle Lancelot del Lac. She suggests that an analysis of Dante’s depiction of Francesca and Paolo must include consideration for medieval concerns about the practice of reading, especially the interest in the intertextuality of the passage as well as anxieties about the inclusion of laymen and laywomen into the audience of readers. Accordingly, she argues that the lovers’ misreading of the Lancelot is twofold: it involves their adultery, which is what the romance warns against, as well as Francesca’s attempt to transform her life into literature, as she mistakes the boundary between literature and her own reality. Although her reading of Lancelot will be challenged by Balfour (1995), Naokes’ argument against moralizing readings of Inferno 5 and her more sympathetic understanding of Francesca’s actions will be echoed by Lombardi (2012).


Simonelli, Maria Picchio. “Dante and his public.” Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 54 (1984): 37-54.

Simonelli aims to identify and define the readers which Dante addressed not only in the Commedia, but the Convivio as well. Mapping Georges Duby’s tripartite division of feudal society onto this audience, she suggests that Dante was primarily directing his works towards the “oratores”, who were understood as morally corrupt, as well as the “bellatores”, who were understood by Dante as holders of political power, yet still ignorant and in need of wisdom. As Simonelli suggests, Dante’s aim was to show the nobility how to use their power to restore order to their society, and to exhort the clergy to moral purification. Contrary to Russo (1970), she argues that Dante never aimed to address the mercantile orders, even though this class would ultimately embrace and appreciate his work to the greatest extent. Simonelli’s approach, which situates Dante’s audience in the wider context of medieval society, underlines the historical reality of Dante’s readers, whereas past approaches, such as Beall (1979), have tended to emphasize instead the “fictive” nature of this audience. Instead of understanding readership as a concept which Dante manipulated for the sake of constructing his own authorial voice, Simonelli clearly highlights the reader’s role as the recipient of Dante’s hopes for changing and improving his society.



Ahern, John. “The Reader on the Piazza: Verbal Dual in Dante’s Vita Nuova.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 32 (1990): 18-39.

Ahern explores the social context of Dante’s composition of the Vita Nova. In the opening line “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore,” as Ahern argues, Dante addressed his readers directly, thereby escaping the paradigm of the verbal duel as a vehicle for literary discourse between lovers or intellectuals. Whereas a number of his poems seek a perceptible response (like a nod, a greeting or a written reply), Dante’s innovation in these opening lines was to leave behind the social event of the verbal duel which had occasioned the poem, not seeking not a direct response from a collocutor, but an invisible response from a distant public. In addition, Ahern discusses the gendered language which Dante uses in this address to his readers, suggesting that Dante’s decision to refer to his readers as ladies who had a knowledge of love was justified by a historical understanding of women as the originators of vernacular love poetry and romances. However, the word “intelletto” related to his male audience as well, specifically those who were trained in philosophical debate and participated in the scholastic culture of the universities. Thusly, Ahern argues, Dante succeeded in uniting the worlds of vernacular prose and poetry with philosophy, indicating that a full understanding of the Vita Nova required the combination of the two distinct modes of reading involved in vernacular and scholastic literature.


Ahern, John. “The New Life of the Book: The Implied Reader of the Vita Nuova.” Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 110 (1992): 1-16. Web:

Ahern reformulates and emphasizes certain aspects of his 1990 essay. By liberating himself from the traditional confines of the verbal duel, Dante, as Ahern suggests, achieved a degree of self-reflectiveness which was unparalleled in his day. Discussing new developments in the author’s identification with the act of writing itself and changes in the material format of the book, he argues that Dante’s conflation of female readers of vernacular literature with male readers of philosophical texts was incorporated into the physical makeup of the text itself.


Durling, Robert M. “The Audience(s) of the De vulgari eloquentia and the Petrose. Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 110 (1992): 25-35. Web:

Durling explores Dante’s conception of his readers from the perspective of the De vulgari eloquentia, the Convivio and the Petrose. As Durling argues, Dante’s contradictory representation of his lady in his collection of petrose symbolized his ambivalent relationship with his readers, indicating that Dante was unsatisfied with the response he received from his audience, who he believed did not fully understand his intentions and literary achievements. As Durling suggests, the Convivio and the De vulgari eloquentia reveal that Dante’s intellectual aspirations were the root of this tension, encompassing both a disdain for readers of Latin as well as a desire for the admiration of the literate and educated. Whereas Petronio (1965) and Simonelli (1984) have pointed out Dante’s exclusion of certain groups from his ideal readership, Durling’s analysis is unique in his stress on the hostility and anger which Dante felt towards his readers, suggesting that his works were shaped by a set of complex psychological motivations which derived from Dante’s yearning for recognition.


Kay, Richard. “The intended readers of Dante’s Monarchia. Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 110 (1992): 37-44. Web:

Kay investigates the intended audience of Dante’s Monarchia by examining the work through the lens of the medieval trivium, namely grammar, rhetoric and logic. He argues that Dante was ostentatious in his flaunting of the formal, logical underpinnings of his work, which suggests an intended audience of university-educated individuals who were trained in the arts, but had not received the advanced training of professional theologians or philosophers. As Kay concludes, the work was intended as a work of propaganda which was meant to reach the widest possible audience, especially the Latin intelligentsia. In this sense, Kay agrees with the conclusion made by Lansing (1992) in regard to the Convivio, which deemphasizes Dante’s concerns about the intellectual inadequacies of his readers.


Lansing, Richard. “Dante’s Intended Audience in the Convivio.Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 110 (1992): 17-24.

Lansing investigates Dante’s construction of his audience in the Convivio. As he argues, the most important strategy which Dante uses to identify his readers is by defining those who are not invited to the banquet, namely those who use and rely on Latin in professional settings, especially the clergy, lawyers, and jurists. Dante’s mission, as Lansing suggests, is to undertake the moral project of civilizing and educating the highest classes in Italian society, teaching them how to acquire true nobility. However, whereas scholars like Petronio (1965) have focused on the ways in which Dante excluded certain groups from his intended readership, Lansing emphasizes the idea that Dante was hoping to reach the greatest number of readers possible. In this sense, he follows Simonelli (1984) in her emphasis on Dante’s desire to create in the Convivio a treatise which directly engaged with – and attempted to change – his contemporary society.


Balfour, Mark. “Francesca da Rimini and Dante’s Women Readers.” In Women, the Book and the Worldly: Selected Proceedings of the St. Hilda’s Conference, edited by Leslie Smith and Jane H.M. Taylor, 71-84. Cambridge: Brewer, 1995.

Balfour investigates the connection between Francesca’s status as a female reader of vernacular literature in Inferno 5 with Dante’s representation of vernacular literature in the Vita Nova, the Convivio, and the De vulgari eloquentia. He argues that Dante’s expectations in regard to the reception of his vernacular works, and principally the Commedia, included the possibility of female readers as well as the possibility of misreading. As he suggests, the figure of Francesca in Inferno 5 is a representation of the two possibilities being brought together. Accordingly, he follows Noakes (1983) in the suggestion that it is not the act of reading itself which is considered sinful by Dante, but the way in which the reader engages with the text, demonstrating Dante’s understanding of the reader’s active role in the production of the text’s meaning. The understanding of Francesca as a “bad” reader will be challenged by Lombardi (2012).



Franke, William. “Dante’s Address to the Reader in Face of Derrida’s Critique of Ontology.” Analecta Husserliana 64 (2000): 119-131.

Franke investigates Dante’s addresses to the reader through the lens of the works of Jacques Derrida, using Derrida’s texts to reveal the different possibilities of meaning in the Commedia. This study represents a break from previous scholarship in its approach, which is based on the understanding that modern philosophical ideas can be used as an interpretive tool for unlocking the meaning of Dante’s work. Applying this methodology to the addresses to the reader, Franke overcomes the traditional distinction in Dante Studies between the historical and fictive reader. As he argues, the reader lies simultaneously outside of the text, as an external being whose invocation disturbs the fictional nature of the narrative, as well as inside of the text, as a product of the literary work itself.


Kirkham, Victoria. Dante and the Book Glutton, or, Food for Thought from Italian Poets. Binghamton: Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2004.

Kirkham analyzes the representation of Dante as a book glutton, especially as it was expressed by his admirers Giannozzo Manetti and Boccaccio. Situating this portrait in a wider tradition in which authors were represented as inseparable from their books, she recalls classical, medieval and modern examples of “book gobblers” to demonstrate how books were – and continue to be – imagined as emblematic of the writer’s profession, connected to authors through an indissoluble bond expressed in literary and visual works alike. This study is unique not only in its focus on the iconography and literary imagery of how readers were imagined in Dante’s time, but in its investigation of how Dante’s status as a reader functioned to bolster his legitimacy in the eyes of his literary successors.


De Ventura, Paolo. “Gli appelli all’uditore e il dialogo con il lettore nella Commedia.”  Dante: Rivista internazionale di studi su Dante Alighieri 1 (2004): 81-99. Web:

In this study, De Ventura aims to add to Gmelin’s analysis (1951) by incorporating some observations about what it meant to read and be a reader in the medieval period. Referring to some of Dante’s earliest commentators, De Ventura argues that Dante sought to represent himself according to the model of the perfect preacher, understanding that the activity of listening was intricately connected to reading. De Ventura’s proposition that the addresses to the reader related to Dante’s desire to imitate a homiletic style highlight the performative nature of the text. Indeed, following the emphasis of Spitzer (1955) on the sense of friendliness and familiarity which Dante felt towards his readers, De Ventura argues that it is through this homiletic style that Dante was able to establish a sense of intimacy with his readers.


Steinberg, Justin. Accounting for Dante: Urban Readers and Writers in Late Medieval Italy. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

Steinberg argues that the self-reflexive nature of Dante’s work can be explained by Dante’s awareness and concerns for the early circulation of his work, especially the urban public of readers and writers represented in the Memoriali bolognesi and the Vatican anthology. This concern motivated a process of revision and reinterpretation that can account for the poetic and personal development outlined in the Vita Nova and the Commedia. Whereas past scholars, such as Simonelli (1984) and Petronio (1965), have emphasized the aristocratic nature of Dante’s readers, Steinberg’s study represents a break from previous scholarship in its insistence on placing Dante’s readers within the municipal and social context of the Italian city-state. In fact, as a result of his lack of control over the material dissemination of his works, Dante’s oeuvre, as Steinberg argues, was defined by a kind of “spatializing poetics” which sought to blur the distinction between his text and his historical context, allowing Dante to have some influence over the urban readers’ interpretation of his work.


O’Connell Baur, Christine. “Dialectical Reading and the Dialectic of Salvation.” In Dante’s Hermeneutics of Salvation: Passages to Freedom in the “Divine Comedy,” 135-171. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Baur uses post-Heideggerian philosophy as a tool for interpreting the roles of the reader and the text in the Commedia. In the chapter “Dialectical Reading and the Dialectic of Salvation,” she discusses Dante’s addresses to the reader and investigates how readers appropriated and transformed Dante the Pilgrim’s journey through the process of reading. More specifically, using the Purgatorio as her foundation, she argues that these addresses imply that the text’s meaning was not understood to be completely fixed by Dante himself, but derived from the reader’s participation, encouraging and aiding that reader to undergo a salvific journey of his or her own. In this sense, her observations echo Amtower (2000), who makes similar conclusions about the Vita Nova, as well as Chiampi (1983), who also situates the addresses to the reader within the context of Dante’s hopes for spiritual conversion.


Bennett, Benjamin. “Dante and the invention of the novel reader.” In The Dark Side of Literacy: Literature and Learning Not to Read, 85-140. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

This study is a critical, theoretical and historical investigation of the development and meaning of the modern conception of reading and readership. In his chapter on Dante, Bennett argues that the notion of reading expounded in the Commedia prefigures ideas later associated with modern novels. As Bennett suggests, Dante, motivated both by poetic and theological concerns, created a set of implied instructions for reading which resemble the expectations required by modern novels, involving the subjective participation of individual readers. His analysis is based on a close reading of a number of passages from the Commedia, especially the Paradiso, with reference to the De vulgari eloquentia as well as the Epistle to Cangrande della Scala. Though his approach is more theoretical, Bennett’s emphasis on the individuality of the readers and the need for their subjective participation in the experience of reading closely mirrors the observations of Amtower (2000). In addition, in his analysis of Inferno 5, he follows Noakes’ argument (1983) on the sinful nature of reading, which is due to its secular nature and the constant possibility of misreading, but he also emphasizes the dangers of the creative role of the reader’s fantasy, the way in which readers tend to imitate and reimagine texts. Also see Levine (2009).


Levine, Peter. “Good and bad stories, and Francesca as a reader.” In Reforming the Humanities: Literature and Ethics from Dante Through Modern Times, 105-125. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

In this chapter, Levine explores the ethical tensions related to the practice of reading in Inferno 5. He argues that although Dante viewed his own passion-inciting stories as moral tests that demanded the restraint of readers and required their condemnation of Francesca’s misreading of romances, Dante also understood literature’s capacity to help teach empathy, judgement and moral behaviour. In this respect, Levine’s conclusions on Dante’s fears about the dangers of misreading resemble the observations of Bennett (2008). However, Levine’s approach differs in his incorporation of both medieval texts (such as the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Roman de Lancelot, and the Consolation of Philosophy) as well as modern literary texts into his analysis. In this way, Levine situates Dante’s anxieties about the value of literary texts and the dangers of sentimentality within the context of a wider tradition, demonstrating the continuity of these doubts throughout the course of literary history.



Lombardi, Elena. “Reading.” In The Wings of the Doves: Love and Desire in Dante and Medieval Culture, 212-247. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012.

In this book, Lombardi explores the multilayered nature of Inferno 5, addressing the way in which the canto represents the complicated relationship between spiritual and erotic versions of love and desire. In chapter 6, “Reading,” she discusses the canto’s relationship with intertextuality, the act of reading and the material culture of the book. Supplementing her analysis with references to iconographical representations of reading as well as Augustine’s Confessions, she argues that the complex rhetorical and interpretive process through which Francesca and Paolo read the romance achieves the aim of Dante’s canto. This is to say that the erotic union of the lovers is a representation of the process of book-binding, as if their union was a representation of the romance which they were reading or the Commedia itself. Accordingly, contrary to Levine (2009) and Bennett (2008) – and, more generally, the critical tradition dating back to Contini – Lombardi argues against the stigmatization of the canto as an episode of immoral misreading. Instead, she emphasizes the subversive nature of Dante’s representation of the lovers, suggesting that the act of misreading does not make Francesca a bad reader, but rather reflects the carnality of the activity of reading itself.


Steinberg, Glenn A. “Dante’s Bookishness: Moral Judgment, Female Readers, and a ‘Rerealization’ of Brunetto Latini.” Modern Philology 112, no. 1 (August 2014): 25-55. Web:

Steinberg explores the way in which gender and sexuality symbolically relate to the concept of genre for Dante and his contemporaries, especially in connection to the representation of Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15. Following Justin Steinberg (2007), he seeks to situate Dante within the context of the literary and cultural debates of his day. He argues that Dante’s continual references to female readers in the Commedia as well as his decision to portray Brunetto Latini as a sodomite reflect his desire to distance his work from his literary rivals. In this way, as Steinberg suggests, Dante’s work represents and advances the stilnovisitic poetic tradition in opposition to protohumanist principles. In relation to the concept of readership, Steinberg’s discussion of Dante’s intentions in directing his work to female readers is of particular interest. As he suggests, Dante’s references to female readers in the Vita Nova and the Commedia were addressed to a female public which was half-fictitious and half-real, reconciling the discussion of Ahern (1990) on the metaphorical nature of the addresses to the ladies with the argument of Balfour (1995) for the real engagement of female readers.


Aleksander, Jason. “The Divine Comedy’s Construction of Its Audience in Paradiso 2, lines 1-18.” Essays in Medieval Studies 30 (2014): 1-10. Web:

In this study, Aleksander discusses the theological doctrine of extra Ecclesiam nulla salus [no salvation outside the Church] in relation to Paradiso 19 and 20, proposing that Dante’s understanding of the salvation of individuals required nothing more than the individual’s potential for and orientation towards salvation. Using this interpretation as a lens through which to view the address to the reader in Paradiso 2, Aleksander argues that the passage presupposes the readers’ shared knowledge of the pilgrimage experience expressed in the Commedia, calling attention to the audience’s historical preparation for receiving and being transformed by Dante’s work. Whereas the approaches of Gmelin, Auerbach, Spitzer and Beall have shared the goal of studying and understanding all of the addresses in the Commedia together, Aleksander’s study is unique in its close reading of only one particular address. His observations align with Spitzer’s emphasis (1955) on the universality of Dante’s intended audience but are also indebted to Auerbach’s remarks (1952) on Dante’s didactic conception of his duty towards his readers.


Calenda, Corrado. “Reticenza e allusione: strategie comunicative dell’autore e attese del lettore sulla soglia della Vita Nuova.” In Per Beneficio e Concordia di Studio, edited by Andrea Mazzucchi, 247-254. Cittadella: Bertoncello Artigrafiche, 2015.

Calenda explores the way in which the Vita Nova served as a beginning point for the development of Dante’s attitude towards the interpretation of his work, serving as a preliminary declaration of his intentions towards his readers. He argues that an implied appeal to the reader was hidden, but still active, inside of the sophisticated literary strategies which Dante used to convey his literary biography. Comparing the prosimetric structure of the Vita Nova with Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Calenda suggests that Dante’s work would have served as a surprise for readers, since its genre was relatively rare and uncommon in Dante’s day. In the context of the scholarly discussion around the readership of the Vita Nova, Calenda’s approach is unique in its focus on the poetic and structural elements of the work. Whereas scholars have usually focused on issues of gender and class in relation to the libello’s readers, Calenda’s analysis illuminates some of their literary expectations.


Ferrara, Sabrina. La parola dell’esilio. Autore e lettori nelle opere di Dante in esilio. Firenze: Cesati, 2016.

This study investigates the literary works produced by Dante after his exile, exploring the way in which this experience shaped his representation of himself as an author as well as his relationship with his readers. As Ferrara argues, because Dante’s exile determined his need to reconstruct and propagate an image of himself to the reader which modified his historical reality, the sense of the text cannot be disassociated from the circumstances which generated it. Accordingly, as Ferrara suggests, Dante’s construction of his own authorship existed at the centre of the texts which he produced during his exile as the fundamental source of their meaning, containing his hopes for his readers to identify and understand the nature of his authority as a writer. Ferrara’s study represents a break from previous scholarship in its focus on Dante’s exile as the crucial point for understanding the way in which Dante conceived his readers. Also see Zanin (2018) for discussions about the anxieties which Dante’s exile introduced into his conception of his readers.


McGerr, Rosemarie. “The Judge as Reader, the Reader as Judge: Literary and Legal Judgment in Dante, Machaut, and Gower.” In Machaut’s Legacy: The Judgment Poetry Tradition in the Later Middle Ages and Beyond, edited by R. Barton Palmer and Burt Kimmelman, 165-191. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2017.

McGerr explores how mirrors of princes presented advice and political commentary to rulers in a camouflaged form. In an effort to understand the hermeneutics of Machaut’s Jugement dou roy de Navarre, she uses Dante’s Commedia and John Gower’s Confessio amantis to highlight the importance of skilled reading in relation to a medieval ruler’s capacity to deal out wise judgements. In reference to the Commedia, which McGerr considers in conjunction with the Epistle to Cangrande and the Monarchia, she argues that Dante employed literary techniques to deflect and disguise his advice, interweaving his lessons with discussions about good and evil forms of love, literary commentary, satire, and spiritual enlightenment. As McGerr suggests, these literary strategies, in combination with Dante’s deep concern for the hermeneutical process, characterized the new form of the princely mirror in the fourteenth century. Whereas previous discussions about Dante’s understanding of the meaning of correct reading have largely centered around Inferno 5, McGerr’s approach is unique in understanding the Commedia from a purely political perspective.


Zanin, Enrica. “Miseri, ‘mpediti, affamati: Dante’s Implied Reader in the Convivio.” In Dante’s “Convivio” or How to Restart a Career in Exile, 207-221. Bern: Lang, 2018.

Zanin explores the way in which Dante’s references to the implied readers of the Convivio function as a vehicle for Dante’s epistemological and ethical concerns. She argues that these addresses to the reader served to test the very possibility that a reader could conceivably understand and fully appreciate the work, thereby demonstrating Dante’s anxieties about not being correctly understood at the advent of his exile. Surveying these implied references throughout the course of the Convivio, Zanin suggests that although Dante invites his readers to discover the knowledge contained in the work, his words contain the fear that not all will be able to fully understand, excluding false philosophers and those who are not truly noble from his desired community of readers. This study is the most comprehensive analysis of Dante’s implied and explicit allusions to the readers of the Convivio to date. Whereas Simonelli (1984), Lansing (1992), and Petronio (1965) similarly use the Convivio to comment on Dante’s desire for a noble readership, Zanin situates these concerns within the context of Dante’s exile.



Studies on Dante’s Context

Petrucci, Armando. Writers and Readers in Medieval Italy: Studies in the History of Written Culture, edited and translated by C. M. Radding. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Petrucci employs a paleographical approach to argue that the history of books and their usage was an essential component of medieval Italian culture and intellectual history. Chapters 7 and 9 are of particular interest in reference to the concept of readership. In chapter 7, “Reading in the Middle Ages,” Petrucci links the changes which occurred in manuscript production to the different modes of reading which developed throughout the course of the medieval period, arguing that the process demonstrates increasing concerns about the reader’s reception of the text. In chapter 9, “Reading and Writing Volgare in Medieval Italy,” Petrucci discusses the historical circumstances that led to the “canonization” of vulgar literature, the gradual process through which it was deemed worthy of being committed to text. This study is a fundamental reference work for understanding the context in which the readers of Dante’s vernacular works found themselves and the way in which they would have viewed and understood his works. Accordingly, Petrucci’s study can serve as an extension of the historical discussion of Dante’s most immediate readers, by supplementing the analysis of Ahern (1992), Simonelli (1984) and Steinberg (2007).


Amtower, Laurel. Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

This study investigates the relationship which existed between later medieval reading habits and the shaping of identity, especially in reference to the readers’ creativity, responsibility and individual reading responses. Amtower refers to scholarship on medieval manuscript and print culture in order to demonstrate the ways in which social and technological shifts in book culture intersect with medieval conceptions of subjectivity. In addition to iconographic representations of readers, she bases her analysis of subjectivity on literary texts from the fourteenth to mid-fifteenth century, concentrating on England, but also including some discussion of Dante, Petrarch and Christine de Pizan. Like Petrucci (1995), she observes a new cultural trend in the later medieval period which saw a heightened awareness of a reader for whom manuscripts were intended and whom they were meant to instruct, further adding that the reader’s response was anticipated and idealized by the author. This point is made particularly in reference to Dante’s Vita Nova, in which Dante, as Amtower argues, demands the full participation of his readers, with their cooperation enacting the illusion of conversion through poetry.


Ascoli, Albert Russell. “Worthy of Faith? Authors and Readers in Early Modernity.” In The Renaissance World, edited by John Jeffries Martin, 435-451. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Ascoli argues that early modern notions of authorship were intricately tied to ideas and realities of readership. In this essay, he surveys a collection of representative texts from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries, investigating the ways in which authorial control over the meaning of a text was imagined in relation to the experience of its readers, as well as how readers either embraced the author’s intended message or purposefully rejected it. As Ascoli suggests, these developments reflect a movement away from traditional readerly beliefs about the moral and intellectual credibility of the author. Ascoli considers the works of Dante and Petrarch as the moment in which these changes begins to occur. Particularly in reference to Dante, Ascoli refers to the Convivio to observe that Dante portrayed himself both as a reader of classical texts as well as a writer who possessed the same kind of intellectual authority as his predecessors, thereby collapsing the difference between these two roles and opening new possibilities for his literary successors in their relationship with their readers.


Textual Cultures of Medieval Italy, edited by William Robins. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011.

This is an interdisciplinary collection of case studies on a number of different sources, including legal treatises, hagiographies, handbooks on rhetoric and vernacular poetry. The essays explore the way in which ideological and cultural concerns informed writing strategies, as well as the way in which these texts served as sites of cultural production, playing important roles in the shaping of medieval Italy society.


Lombardi, Elena. Imagining the Woman Reader in the Age of Dante. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Lombardi explores how the figure of the female reader is central to the constructions of textuality and literary authority in Dante’s time. She considers the history of female literacy, the material culture of the book, and the ways in which earlier Occitan and French poets imagined the female reader in order to argue that the inclusion of women readers brought several advantages to vernacular authors, such as the incorporation of ideas like orality, desire, the mother tongue, and the beauty of ornamentation. Specifically, in reference to Dante, in Chapter 5, “Francesca and the Others,” Lombardi extends her 2012 study to explore the appeal of Inferno 5 to the visual, as well as the use of literary texts in Francesca’s speech. In addition, she contextualizes Francesca’s depiction through an analysis of the performative effects of medieval courtly literature, as well as a comparison to other female readers, such as Heloise and Alyson of Bath.


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Main References to Contrapasso in Dante’s Works (and sources)

  1. Thomas Aquinas (1265-74). “Videtur quod iustum sit simpliciter idem quod contrapassum. Judicium enim divinum est simplicter justum. Sed haec est forma divini iudicii ut secundum quod aliquis fecit patiatur, secundum illud Matth. VII, vers. 2: In quo judicio judicaveritis, judicabimini; et in qua mensura mensi fueritis, remetietur vobis. Ergo justum est simpliciter idem quod contrapassum.” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, Quaestio 61, article 4)
  2. Dante, Inferno 6, 53-57: per la dannosa colpa de la gola,/come tu vedi, a la piggia mi fiacco./E io anima trista non son sola,/ché tutte queste a simil pena stanno per simil colpa.
  3. Dante, Inferno 26, 55-57: Rispuose a me: Là dentro si martira/Ulisse e Diomede, e così insieme/a la vendetta vanno come a l’ira
  4. Dante, Inferno 28, 139-142: Perch’io parti’ così giunte persone,/partito porto il mio cerebro, lasso!,/dal suo principio ch’è in questo troncone./Così s’osserva in me lo contrapasso (Also see, Inferno 105-108; Inferno 20, 38-39; Purgatorio 11, 52-54).


Main Definitions in Dante Studies

  1. Guido da Pisa (1327). “Qui separate alios, seu amicitia seu parentela coniunctos, caput a corpore portat divisum […] et sic observatur in eo contrapassus [sic], quia debet recipere id quod fecit.”
  2. Pietro Alighieri (1340-44). “Post hec auctor intelligendis est loqui de dictis vulnerationibus harum animarum potius per hanc rationem, quod pena sit conformis delicto, quam per allegoriam”
  3. Anonimo Fiorentino (c. 1400). “Egli è differenza fra giustizia e contrapasso: giustizia si dice quando l’uomo ha morto et egli è poi morto; in qualunque modo muoia si dice giustizia. Contrapasso ha in se più severità e ragione; ché vuole che nella esecuzione della giustizia tutte le cose occorrano che sono occorse nella offesa; ché vuole che l’uomo omicida sia morto quell’ora del dì ch’elli uccise, per il modo, et in quel luogo, et con quelli ordini, et similia.”
  4. Cristoforo Landino (1481). “Come verbi gratia chi taglia la mano a uno vuole tal legge che a lui similmente sia tagliato la mano. Et questo così punito in latino e contrapassus, perché ha patito alloncontro quello che havea inferito ad altri.”
  5. Lodovico Castelvetro (1570). “con quella misura, che io ho misturato ad altrui, ora è rimisurato a me, e questa è la legge della pena del pari, che si domanda in latino poena talionis.”
  6. Niccolò Tommaseo (1854). “Questa legge in tutti quasi i supplizii di Dante s’osserva.”
  7. Giovanni Andrea Scartazzini (1874). “la legge del taglione, che vuole che tal sia punito qual fece […] Secondo questa legge Dante distribuisce nel suo Inferno tutte le pene.”
  8. Francesco D’Ovidio (1906). “[…] le pene infernali rimbeccano direttamente le colpe, o per analogia o per contrasto […] or quasi taglione or quasi sarcasmo della giustizia divina sia attuato in modo quasi sempre necessariamente imperfetto […]”
  9. Carlo Steiner (1921). “da contrapati; parola che esprime il rapporto che corre tra il castigo in quanto è effetto della colpa. Questo rapporto domina l’oltretomba dantesca nei due regni dell’Inferno e del Purgatorio, e consiste particolarmente nel rapporto per analogia o per contrasto, tra la natura del castigo e quella del peccato.”
  10. A. Scartazzini and G. Vandelli (1929). “E intesa così largamente, la parola contrapasso esprime il concetto fondamentale a cui sono informate le pene dell’Inferno e del Purgatorio dantesco. E in questo è compreso anche il concetto biblico della pena, quello del taglione.”
  11. Natalino Sapegno (1955-57). “la norma per cui la pena si adegua con esatta proporzione alla colpa. Il termine era usato dagli scholastici e traduceva un vocabolo di Aristotele.”
  12. Giorgio Padoan (1967). “il tipo di punizione ha attinenza, per analogia o per contrasto, con la colpa commessa.”
  13. Teodolinda Barolini (2000). “… contrapasso [is] the principle whereby the punishment fits the crime. For Dante, the contrapasso frequently takes the form of literalizing a metaphor … punishment is not something inflicted by God but the consequence, indeed the enactment, of the sin itself […] Overall, Dante effectively uses the contrapasso to deflect any sense of randomness or arbitrariness and to suffuse his text with a sense of God’s order and justice.”
  14. Davide Bolognesi (2010). “… il contrapassum (inteso come principio retributivo della pena) non è semplicemente una conseguenza del peccato, ma piuttosto (inteso come concetto che presiede alla dinamica commutativa) viene a chiarire il background logico, la premessa su cui Dante sviluppa la nona bolgia quale luogo deputato a raccogliere i responsabili di una colpa specifica. In altre parole, il contrapassum, dal punto di vista dell’invenzione poetica, è una causa, non una conseguenza; e logicamente precede la colpa, non la segue. Perciò dico che la parola contrapasso è portata necessariamente da Dante in punta di canto: perché rivela quasi l’ipoteso, il laboratorio del suo lavoro poetico, e la premessa concettuale di questa sezione del poema.”
  15. Justin Steinberg (2014). “the ‘contrapasso’ should not be considered the ‘law’ of Dante’s justice as he evokes it precisely to demonstrates the limits of that law, especially in extreme and unprecedented cases.”

Annotated Bibliography

19th century

Tommaseo, Niccolò. La Comedia di Dante Allighieri col comento di N. Tommaseo. Naples: Cioffi, 1839. 208.

Tommaseo’s note to the terzina in Inferno where Bertran utters the word ‘contrapasso’ was influential established a long tradition of considering the contrapasso as the general ‘law’ of the Commedia that governs all the punishments of Hell and the penances of Purtagory.

Scartazzini, Giovanni Andrea. La Divina Commedia di Dante Alighieri riveduta nel testo e commentate da G. A. Scartazzini, I. L’Inferno. Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1874. 338

Scaratazzini’s note was also influential and further established the contrapasso as the lex talionis which governs all of the Commedia.


D’Ovidio, Francesco. Nuovi studi danteschi. Il Pugatorio e il suo preludio. Milan: Hoepli, 1906. 197-208.

D’Ovidio affirms earlier notes that the punishment corresponds directly to the sin either by analogy or contrast while maintaining that the application of the contrapasso is not always perfect.

Filomusi Guelfi, Lorenzo. Studi su Dante. Città di Castello: Lapi, 1908. 331-340.

This chapter marks the beginning of the fundamental debate in modern Dante studies regarding Dante’s intended meaning in his use of the word ‘contrapasso.’ Filomusi Guelfi asserts that, in his use of the word contrapasso, Dante did not intend the restricted, lex talionis sense of the word, correctly pointing out that, in the Summa, Aquinas actually goes on later to reject the proposition that the contrapassum is “simply” divine judgement (“[…] probat non quodlibet iustum esse contrapassum,” Summa IIa-IIAB, quaestio 6, article 4 s. c.). Filomusi Guelfi concludes that it would have been a considerable diversion from Aquinas if Dante had intended his contrapasso to be extended from the specific commutative case of Bertran to the rest of Hell and to Purgatory as a fundamental principle of justice. Placing the word in the mouth of Bertran de Born, Filomusi argues, Dante intended a broader, metaphorical meaning, not the true philosophical/theological sense of the word.


Steiner, Carlo. La Divina Commedia commento da Carlo Steiner. Turin: Paravia, 1921. [repr. 1960] 370.

See Steiner’s note to Inferno 28, lines 139-142, which asserts the fundamentality of the contrapasso as a general law of the Commedia.

D’Ovidio, Francesco. “Così si osserva in me lo contrapasso.” In L’ultimo volume dantesco. Rome: A.P.E., 1926.

D’Ovidio responds in this essay to Filmusi Guelfi (1908), acknowledging that for Aquinas the contrapasso is strictly speaking a form of divine justice rendered commutatively. However, D’Ovidio maintains that contrapasso in the Inferno is not simply metaphorical because it is seen there to be inflicted on the bodies and souls of the damned. The lex talionis, D’Ovidio maintains, is a precondition of Dante’s poetics.


Vazzana, Steno. Il contrapasso nella Divina Commedia. Rome: M. Ciarnna, 1959.

Vazzana presents a series of readings and interpretations of the individual ‘contrapassi’ of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.



Nicolai, Giovanni. “Il canto delle ‘ombre triste smozzicate’.” In Letture dell’“Inferno, edited by Vittorio Vettori. Milan: Marzorati, 1963. 230-255.

In this essay, Niccolai reads and interprets the law of contrapasso in canto 28 through verse 6 of canto 29 (“là giù tra l’ombre triste smozzicate”), arguing the entire canto is structured around a sense of mercy (‘la pietade’).  Nicolai focuses in particular on the word ‘triste,’ which appears 3 times with reference to the ‘ombre smozzicate’ of canto 28 (v. 26, “’l tristo sacco”; v. 111 “come persona trista e matta”; v. 120 “la trista greggia”). Dante uses the word ‘triste’ not in the simple sense of ‘dolore’, but rather something so painful that it voids every other thought. Appearing 37 times in Inferno, Niccolai argues, Dante’s uses the word always in conjunction with his sense of commiseration for the sinners’ plight – that is, where divine justice rouses Dante the man’s sense of pity. Nicolai shows how Dante’s sense of mercy for the sinners of canto 28 gradually increases as he encounters them.



Pasquazi, Silvio. In Enciclopedia dantesca, edited by Umberto Bosco, s.v. “Contrapasso.” Rome: Istituto della Enciclopedia italiana, 1970 (various reprints). Web:

In this often-cited entry, Pasquazi defines contrapasso as Dante’s application of the ancient juridical/moral principle of the lex talionis (as formulated in Exodus 21, Leviticus 24, and Deuteronomy 19). It is understood by Dante’s early commentators to function either by analogy or contrast and is the rule applied, not always perfectly, to all the punishments of Hell and Purgatory.

Norton, Glyn. “‘Contrapasso’ and the Archetypal Metamorphoses in the Seventh ‘Bolgia’ of Dante’s Inferno.” Symposium 25 (1971): 162-170.

This essay considers the nature of retribution in the seventh Bolgia, reading the metamorphosis and transmutation of serpents as manifestations of the contrapasso there.

Fineo, S. “Il contrapasso nei sommersi.” In Idem, Studi danteschi, Florence: Le Monnier, 1972. 49-48.

A consideration of the significance of the contrapasso in four cases where sinners are “submerged”: 1) the slothful in the Styx, Inferno 8; 2) homicides in a river of blood, Inferno 12; 3) barraters in thick tar, Inferno 22; and 4) traitors in ice, Inferno 32.

Trovato, Mario. “Il contrappasso nell’ottava bolgia.” Dante Studies 94 (1976): 47-60. Web:

This essay offers an analysis of the meaning of the contrapasso in the Ulysses episode (Inferno 26).


Cassell, Anthony K. Dante’s Fearful Art of Justice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Cassell maintains that the contrapasso (“the justice of retaliatory punishment”) is at the center of the Commedia, both poetically and philosophically. The author reasserts the idea that Dante’s primary source was Aquinas’ Summa and the idea of the lex talionis. As “rigida giustizia,” Cassell argues, Dante intends readers to consider contrapasso as a reflection of a form of justice which is lacking in mercy.

Gross, Kenneth. “Infernal Metamorphoses: An interpretation of Dante’s ‘Counterpass’.” Modern Language Notes 100, 1 (1985): 42-69. Web:

Gross cautions the use of the term ‘contrapasso’ to refer to Dante’s entire theory of punishment and the structure of the Commedia given that Dante chose to put the word in the mouth of a damned soul. The author points out that Aquinas chose to render the Greek phrase meaning “he who has suffered something in return” with the Latin word ‘contrapassum,’ joining the prefix contra with the noun passum (step) instead of passio (suffering). Thus, Gross interprets Bertran’s evocation of the word in Inferno 28 specifically as ‘counterpass.’ Infernal punishment does not so much correct sin as perpetuate the spiritual disorder which constitutes sin. Thus, in the mouth of Bertran, ‘contrapasso’ literally means something like “step away from,” reflecting a misunderstanding of his condition. Gross then considers Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and finds the poet’s treatment of the principle of symbolic change reflect in Dante’s ‘counterpass.’ Finally, Gross provides close analyses of Inferno 24 and 21 to demonstrate his thesis regarding the ‘counterpass.’

Abrams, Richard. “Against the Contrapasso. Dante’s heretics, schismatics and others.” Italian Quarterly 27 (1986): 5-19.

In this article, Abrams reads the contrapasso as an illusion of the damned who proclaim themselves victims of a vengeful, anthropomorphic God. That is, the author argues that contrapasso is not so much an interpretative category as it is indicative of the illusion under which sinners continue to labour in the afterlife. The author applies this idea to readings of the heretics in Inferno 10 and finally of Betran de Born in Inferno 28, who cites contrapasso as his own explanation for the divine judgement of an external God.

Artom, Menachem Emanuel. “Precedenti biblici e talmudici del ‘contrapasso.’ In Dante e la Bibbia, edited by G. Barblan. Florence: Olschki, 1988. 55-62.

Artom mines Old Testament and Talmudic passages for some specific notions regarding contrapasso, finding in particular that especially in the Talmud the lex talionis is valid not only for punishment but also for reward. For the most part, the Talmud deals primarily with contrapasso in life and, in particular, with reference to how to proceed when a woman is suspected of adultery. That is, it infrequently discusses the contrapasso in the afterlife. Discussions of the lex talionis in the afterlife appear after the compilation of the Talmud. Artom concludes by suggesting that further study is needed regarding the precise influence of the idea of contrapasso in Jewish literature on the Christian notion and on Dante in particular.


Casagrande, Gino. “‘Per la dannosa colpa de la gola’. Note sul contrapasso di Inferno VI.” Studi Danteschi 62 (1990): 39-52.

Beginning with a review of how ancient and modern commentators have understood the contrapasso in Inferno 6 (gluttony), Casagrande provides a close reading of some moments in that canto that help to explain the relationship between the sin of gluttony and its punishment as well as the allegorical meaning.

Lucchesi, Valerio. “Giustizia divina e linguaggio umano. Metafore e polisemie del contrapasso dantesco.” Studi Danteschi 63 (1991): 53-126.

Lucchesi contributes to the debate regarding the meaning of Dante’s term contrapasso, arguing for the instability of the concept as apparent in Aquinas. The author presents case studies of the semantic particulars of five specific sins and punishments – deceit, anger, pride, theft, fraud. Contrapasso, Lucchesi argues, may be generally understood as the transfer of the abstract sin into a concrete punishment. Polysemy surrounding sin and punishment in Inferno accounts for the signification of contrapasso. Lucchesi also provides a useful discussion of many of the scholarly preconceptions associated with the word and some of the ways in which the concept has and has not been studied.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. “Metaphor and Justice.” In Dante’s Vision and the Circle of Knowledge, idem. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993. 75-95.

Mazzotta reads the ‘contrapasso,’ in reference to Bertran de Born in particular, as the ethical principle of justice establishing the symmetrical relationship between the sin and the punishment. Bertran’s punishment, Mazzotta argues, depends on reparative justice, which properly belongs in the sphere of commutative justice. The contrapasso here is considered a reflection of forms of divine justice before the coming of Christ.

Marchesi, Simone. “The ‘Knot of Language’: Sermocinatio and Contrapasso for the Rhetoricians in Dante’s Inferno.” Romance Languages Annual 1997 9 (1998): 254-259.

Marchesi considers the particular contrapasso of Pier de la Vigna as offering a key to understanding Dante’s conception of rhetoric.


Armour, Peter. “Dante’s Contrapasso. Contexts and texts,” Italian Studies 55 (2000): 1-20.

This is an important contribution with helpful bibliography on the critical history of the term ‘contrapasso.’ Armour briefly summarizes the history of the term beginning with Dante’s early commentators who regarded Dante’s use of it as synonymous with ‘taglione.’ It was only in the nineteenth century, the author argues, that the term was extended to other episodes of the Commedia and became a ‘law’ of divine justice and of Dante’s poetic invention. The author also comments on the tendency to regard contrapasso as identical to the biblical lex talionis and a vigorous consideration of the debate surrounding Aquinas’ use of the term as well Albertus Magnus’ commentary on the Nicomachean Ethics. Armour also comments on the effective extension of the term as a critical category from the mouth of Bertran de Born into all the canticles of the Commedia, arguing that the Dante’s single use of the term in fact restricts the doctrine to the punishment of sin alone, omitting the positive elements of just retribution and the rewarding of the good. The main categories and subdivisions of sin in Inferno are identified in Virgil’s outline of Hell in Inferno XI; such labels, Armour argues, do not necessarily need to be deduced by readers based on a device attached precisely to each sin in the Inferno.

Pertile, Lino. “Contrapasso.” In The Dante Encyclopedia, edited by Richard Lansing, s.v. “Contrapasso.” London and New York: Routledge, 2000. 219-222.

Pertile defines the contrapasso as the principle of justice that determines the precise from of “suffering, either permanent (Hell) or transient (Purgatory), which each soul (excepting those in Limbo) must undergo as punishment or therapy for a particular sin”. Further, Pertile considers the contrapasso a structuring device that gives order to the Commedia at the narrative level. Pertile sees suffering in Hell as retributive and eternal while in Purgatory, it is remedial and lasts only as long as it takes the soul to correct itself. Strictly speaking, Pertile adds, there is no contrapasso in Paradise even though the principle is present in the sense that the souls of the blessed are placed in degrees of proximity to God according to their individual merits. Arguing that punishment, for Dante, is the fulfillment of freely chosen destiny by each soul during life, Pertile maintains that Dante translated the term, ultimately deriving from the biblical lex talionis, into the vernacular from Thomas Aquinas.

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell.” In The Craft and the Fury: Essays in Memory of Glauco Cambon, edited by Joseph Francese. West Lafayette, IN: Bordighera Press, 2000. 82-102. Web:

Barolini discusses Dante’s system of classification of sins and some of the traditions to which he was indebted, arguing finally that Dante’s theology of hell is “laid out by Aristotle, parsed by Aquinas, [… and] most spiritually attuned to Augustine.” There is a succinct discussion of contrapasso and the ways in which some of Dante’s visionary precursors treated the concept at pages 87-89 (Apocalypse of Paul, Aeneid, Vision of Tundale, Enchiridion). The discussion throughout is more generally on Dante’s organization of Hell as based on his threading together of classical and Christian traditions. Barolini also cautions against the overly simplistic scholarly consideration that hell and heaven are eternal which purgatory is temporal. Following Boethius, Barolini argues, Dante recognizes a difference between “perpetual endlessness and eternal timelessness.”

Scholl, Dorothea. “Dante und das Groteske.” Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 77 (2002): 73-105.

Although the term does not appear unto 1480, popularized by the discovery of the decorations of the Domus Aurea in Rome, Scholl heuristically applies the term to Inferno in order to examine the ‘grotesque’ bodies of Dante’s Commedia. For Scholl, the grotesque body is an expression of contrapasso (which Scholl regards as the law by which every sinner must suffer according to the sins he committed in life).

Cardellino, Lodovico. “Il ‘contrapasso’ e il taglione.” In Dante e la Bibbia. Bornato in Franciacorte: Sardini, 2007. 97-105.

Providing a concise review of earlier scholarship on the matter, Cardellino reads against the scholarship on the mechanism of contrapasso, stating that the contrapasso does not so much represent a divine justice that works by analogy or by contrast – i.e., the punishment of sinners according to their sin – as it does the eternal continuation of sinners’ earthly sins. In Inferno, the damned forever suffer the sin to which they had dedicated themselves in life. In Purgatorio, the earthly life of sinners is made up for in their glorification of God. That is, souls in Purgatory experience much the same continuation of transgression in their earthly life as do those in Hell.

Gambale, Giacomo. “Dante, l’Epistula Iacobi, e il De peccato linguae. Per una lettura filosofica di Inferno XXVI.” Studi Danteschi 74 (2009): 179-198.

This article offers a close-reading considering the figure of Ulysses in Inferno 26 and the connection between Ulysses’ shrewd speech/tongue and the flame of fire in which he is wrapped in conjunction with the “Epistle of James.” There, the tongue is described as a small helmsman who guides a ship through diverse situations as well as a flame that can contaminate the body and ignite the course of one’s life. Gambale considers some of the nuanced interpretations of the Epistle in Dante and elsewhere in order to situate the meaning of ‘pravum consilium’ alongside Ulysses’ contrapasso. Ulysses’ sin is of the tongue and, having corrupted the essential purpose of words, he is condemned by means of the flame to control his tongue and to anonymity.


Bolognesi, Davide. “Il contrapasso come chiasma. Appunti su Inferno 28.” L’Alighieri n.s. 36, (2010): 5-20. Web:

This article, often-cited particularly in Italian scholarship, cautions against a reading of the contrapasso as the generative principle of punishment in the Commedia. Instead, Bolognesi argues it is important to read contrapasso in its proper context where it is uttered in the ninth bolgia of Inferno XVIII, which concerns commutative, not retributive justice (even Dante’s earliest commentators seem to read Dante’s contrapasso with reference to a model of commutative justice as explained in Nicomachean Ethics 5). Bolognesi provides a comprehensive commentary on scholarly tendencies regarding contrapasso.

Belliotti, Raymond Angelo. “The Notion of Desert and the Law of ‘Contrapasso.’ In Dante’s Deadly Sins: Moral Philosophy in Hell. Oxford: Blackwell, 2011. 73-103, esp. 81-87.

The essay considers contrapasso in terms of moral desert; that is, sins constitute punishment, or punishment is an internal, inherent part of the deeds themselves. Retributive action in the afterlife is a reflection of sinners’ decisions during life. The author suggests that Dante’s law of contrapasso can be understood as Dante’s belief that in both life and the afterlife sinners become their sins. For example, readers of the Commedia come to understand the nature of sinners in life based on their sufferings in the afterlife. Their punishment reflects their characters and their transgressions.

Kirkham, Victoria. “Contrapasso: The long wait to Inferno 28.” Modern Language Notes 127, 1 (2012): 1-12. Web: Project Muse, doi:

This article considers Dante’s long anticipation of the word ‘contrapasso’ in Inferno 28, arguing that Dante’s reserve in his use of the term signals his accentuation of the importance of numerological progression. Delay was a poetic strategy intended to emphasize the importance of the number 28, which in Neoplatonic numerology is a number of ‘perfection.’ Further, the author examines the symbolic progression from the Neoplatonic ‘perfect’ number 6 to 28 as a deliberate strategy throughout the Inferno. The number 28 signals liminal moments in not only Inferno but also Paradiso, and Dante’s precise placement of the word ‘contrapasso’ indicate his intentionally ‘perfect’ description of infernal justice.

Pertile, Lino. “Ciacco, Brunetto and the Voice of God.” In Legato con amore in un volume. Essays in Honour of John A. Scott, edited by John J. Kinder and Diana Glenn. Florence: Olschki, 2013. 157-174.

The contribution considers the contrapasso of the gluttons in Inferno 6, in particular, the connection between their sin and their punishment (pp. 165-169).

Castelli, Daniela. “L’errore rigorista e la ‘fisica dell’anima’ in una Commedia senza lex talionis.” Studi Danteschi 78 (2013): 154-95.

Employing the term lex talionis as equivalent to ‘contrapasso,’ the author contextualizes Dante’s law of retaliation within Christian and pre-Christian apocalyptic traditions, as well as the literature of mercy. Castelli argues that the system of justice in the Commedia and its mechanism of justice (lex talionis, or contrapasso) is neither arbitrary nor retributive. Rather, both are characteristic of a tradition of mercy which, beginning with Plato and developed by Aristotle, Cicero, Plotinus, Augustine, and Boethius, holds that the ‘weight’ of the soul (pondus animae) is what moves it toward its appropriate location. Thus, it is not the extrinsic justice of the Commedia which places sinners in their respective locations in Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Rather, from an axiological point of view, souls are naturally and necessarily pushed toward the locus to which they are entitled.

Steinberg, Justin. “Dante’s Justice? A Reappraisal of the Contrapasso.” L’Alighieri n.s. 44 (2014): 59-74. Web:

This essay questions a commonplace in the field of Dante studies that describes the ‘contrapasso’ as the alignment of sin and punishment. Steinberg suggests that Dante intended it to be limited to the punishments in Inferno 28 where sins against the public body are extreme and unprecedented. With a focus on tensions that arise in that canto between public and private justice, the author traces the idea of contrapasso in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and its commentaries by Albertus Magus and Thomas Aquinas. In these texts, retributive justice is deemed imperfect and limited in that it was a form of private reparation and did not take into account ‘public’ crimes. Thus, Steinberg argues that, in Inferno 28, Dante questions the limited nature of the lex talionis, or ‘tit-for-tat justice’ as sufficient punishment for the transgression of divine order and extreme crimes against the ‘state.’ As a consequence, the contrapasso is not so much the general law of Dante’s justice, as it is demonstrative of the limits of the law.

Affatato, Rosa. “Contrapasso e conoscenza allegorica nel ‘Purgatorio’ secondo alcuni commenti alla ‘Divina Commedia’ tra XIV e XV secolo.” Critica Letteraria 43, 168-169 (2015): 563-583.

This article traces fourteenth- and fifteenth-century commentators who considered Dante’s contrapasso not as a law (lex talionis), but rather as the relationship between actions on earth and those after life. Until as late as 1481, the contrapasso was understood as a logic of exchange (vd. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 5). That is, the contrapasso is the value of sinners’ actions in life, extended into the afterlife. The author considers contrapasso specifically in Purgatorio, which, she argues, recalls a basic relationship between sin and punishment in Inferno, but is more nuanced with its added element of prayer and its efficacy in the context of eternal divine judgment. Unlike in Inferno, where divine judgement is eternal, in Purgatorio sinners, through prayer, can “pay off” their sins as valued by divine justice. Finally, the author considers the allegorical implications of contrapasso in Purgatorio where, as Beatrice explains to Dante, to understand the allegorical as opposed to the literal meaning of contrapasso, is to possess divine knowledge.

Maglio, Gianfranco. “Ordine e giustizia in Dante.” In Ordine e giustizia in Dante. Il percorso filosofico e teologico, edited by Gianfranco Maglio. Assago and Padova: Wolters Kluwer-CEDAM, 2015. 85-193.

This book considers “justice” in Dante’s oeuvre as an interpretative category within a medieval vision of the world and of history. Within this vision, the human and the divine are expressions of a fundamentally theological order (see especially, pp. 132-73). Thus, the author argues that within the schema of divine justice, Dante takes the fundamentally theological (rather than the juridical) sin into consideration when constructing the contrapasso of sinners. Further, Maglio reports a difference between contrapasso as evident in Inferno, where punishment is eternal, and contrapasso in Purgatorio, where punishment is provisional and didactic. If the contrapassi of Inferno are deliberately distinct from those of Purgatorio, Maglio suggests that the rewards of Paradiso are attributed to blessed souls based on similar criteria. The degree of blessedness that souls enjoy in Paradiso has a direct, proportional relationship with the virtue they exercise in life. Thus, the exercise of an imperfect form of virtue entails the enjoyment of proportional blessedness within the appropriate sphere of heaven.


How to quote this paper:

L. Faibisoff. “ISCAD Annotated Bibliography: Contrapasso.International Seminar on Critical Approaches to Dante. Website, May 2019. Online:


Visibile Parlare




L. Faibisoff (Toronto, CMS)


Last update: May 1st, 2019

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Main References to Visibile Parlare in Dante’s Works (and sources)

  1. Augustine, De doctrina christianaiii.4: “Signorum igitur, quibus inter se homines sua sense communicant, quaedam pertinent ad oculorum sensum […] nam cum innuimus non damus signum nisi oculis eius quem volumus per hoc signum voluntatis nostrae participem facere […] et sunt haec omnia quasi quaedam verba visibilia.”
  2. Dante, Purgatorio 10, 94-96. “Colui che mai non vide cosa nova / produsse esto visibile parlare, / novello a noi perché qui non si trova.”
  3. Dante, Purgatorio 12, 22-24. “sì vid’io lì, ma di miglio sembianza / secondo l’artificio, figurato / quanto per via di fuor del monte avanza.”

Main Definitions in Dante Studies

  1. Anonymus Lombardus (c. 1325). “Hic loquitur [de] deo, cui nichil est novum; et eciam videbatur vidua supradicta loqui cum Traiano imperatore, et in aliis predictis istoriis inibi figuratis et inscultis videbantur homines loqui. Ideo appellat visibile parlare, quod novum est nobis; non enim ex visu auditum precipimus, ad quod quis loquitur; set ibi perceperunt Virgilius et Dante loquelas illas solum per visum.”
  2. Iacopo della Lana (1324-1328). “Cioè che Dio ordinòe essere in quello luogo quelle immagini, per le quali con la vista si discernesse lo suo parlare, e dice nova, cioè che in lo mondo si ode lo parlare, ma in quello luogo lo parlare si vede.”
  3. Francesco da Buti (1385-95). “Lo parlare, seconda natura, è udibile; ma non visibile: questo era visibile, perché finge che fusse scolpito nel marmo che è sopra natura, e questo non può fare se non Iddio.”
  4. Cristoforo Landino (1481). “chiama parlare visibile, che una statua sia sculpita con tale artificio, che ne’ gesti dimostri quello, che direbbe, se parlassi. È adunque parlar visibile, perché vedendo e gesti et non udendo la voce intendevano. Ma questo parlare che non è Nuovo a Dio, chome già è decto, è nuovo a noi mortali, perchè tra noi non si truova. Et per figura qui toccha quello, che in cielo ci adiverà nuovo. Imperochè l’uno vederà el conceptro dell’altro sanza udire el suon della lingua.”
  5. Gabriele Trifone (1525-1541). “chiama questo vesibile parlare, che senz’essere scritto intenda e legga e veda le parole apartenenti a queste sopradette istorie; e ciò dice per darne ad intendere com’era possible che, senza esser scritto, legesse o vedesse le parole che parean dir quelle figure.”
  6. A. Scartazzini (1899). “Parlare visibile, così detto perché le sculture che il Poeta aveva sotto gli occhi eranso sì perfettamente condotte, che il loro parlare si vedeva, non si sentiva.” (in Enciclopedia Dantesca, s. v. ‘visibile’)
  7. Francesco Torraca (1905). “che non si ode, si vede.”
  8. Carlo Steiner (1921). “[…] figure cui si possono leggere le parole nell’atteggiamento, sulle labra, cosa che è invece nuova per gli uomini la cui arte non può giungere a tanto, né possono trovarne modello nella natura che non produce creature di tanta espressività. Ecco perché ha detto prima che la natura lì avrebbe scorno.”
  9. Natalino Sapegno (1955). “Non si deve intendere, come pur fa taluno, che la scultura parli materialmente. Il miracolo di quest’arte divina, che non si trova sulla terra, consiste nel fatto di ritrarre, non più una situazione immobile, ma una serie temporale di situazioni affettive, rendendole simultanee e suggerendo nel contempo le parole che corrispondo ai singoli moment di quel processo.”
  10. Daniele Mattalia (1960). “visivo, percepibile con l’occhio, in quanto realizzato con la materia artisticamente lavorata […] Dante, infatti, ricostruisce e segue il dialogo, ‘dialogo continuato’ guardano il bassorilievo; quanto dire che in esso è realizzata un’altra dimensione del reale, il ‘tempo,’ e che nell’unità della rappresentazione artistica hai tutto il dialogo, scandito nella sequenza temporale delle sue battute e perfettamente riscortuibile dall’osservatore.”
  11. Charles Singleton (1970-75). “Thus, the conceit of this miraculous art continues: Dante while gazing at the reliefs has mysteriously heard all the words spoken in the scenes.”
  12. William Franke (1996). “We must understand this phrase to mean not only that dialogue is rendered in visible form, which would be just another affirmation of their perfection as imitative art. More importantly, “visibile parlare” indicates that the image is used as a kind of speech, that it exists not just in reified form as an object, but as language. Not what it is in it is visible appearance, but what it signifies within the relations established by history and interpretation constitutes the vital reality of these visual images, what they really say, and to this extent they are language.”
  13. Marco Leone (2012): “il poeta concentra nella formula del visibile parlare un insieme di significati plurimi: il primate della parola sugli altri codici espressivi (quelli delle arti), perché la parola è in grado di approssimarsi con maggiore efficacia alla verace descrizione di un manufatto divino, quale è la serie degli altorilievi; e il consapevole incrocio fra le due principali teorie relative alla creazione artistica, che dalla cultura classica arrivano a quella medievale, la teoria aristotelica, secondo cui l’arte è perfetta quanto più riesce a imitare la natura, e quella platonica, che punta non a imitare la natura (a sua volta creata da Dio), ma a riprodurre il mondo delle idee trascendenti.”
  14. Gerhard Wolf (2015). “a complex poetic fiction describing the evocation of speech by means of a visual work of art […], but this in turn is done through words, in an artistic act of “painting with words” (creating stone reliefs, in this case).” 

Annotated Bibliography


Parodi, Ernesto Giacomo. “Gli esempi di superbia punita e il ‘bello stile’ di Dante” (1915). In Poesia e storia nella ‘Divina Commedia.’ Studi critici, idem. Naples: Perrella, 1920. 231-52.

Parodi’s essay is at the beginning of a long tradition which considers the artifice of Purgatorio 10. He examines the marble reliefs as reflections of Purgatory’s physiognomy, which is different from that of Hell. The author refers to the ‘artificio’ that informs Purgatory’s depicted examples of pride, defending the artifice of Purgatorio 10 and 12 as exemplary of a medieval delight in rhetorical ornamentation. Also, Parodi likens the dynamic representation of the marble scenes of Purgatorio 10 as a kind of “effetto cinematografico.”


Austin, H. D. “The Arrangement of Dante’s Purgatorial Reliefs (Purg. X, 34-93) in PMLA 47 (1932): 1-9.

Austin considers the order in which the details of the marble reliefs are presented, pointing out that in Dante’s models (for example, that of Virgil) the arrangement of images is chronological while Dante presents his scenes in a more abstract, formal way. Dante’s presentation of the scenes is so life-like, Austin writes, that they appeal to all the senses, arousing a strong sense of reality and aesthetic appreciation. The author also discusses some of the reasons why Dante may have chosen to represent the Annunciation as the first of the scenes and discusses some of contemporary sculpture programs that may have inspired Dante.

Schlosser, Julius v.. “Dichtung und Bildkunst im Trecento.” Corona 8 (1938) [Italian trans.: “Poesia e arte figurativa nel Trecento,” trans. R. Bianchi Bandinelli, in La Critica d’Arte 3 (1938): 81-90.]

With this article, Schlosser initiated a long and persisting scholarly discussion on the relationship between poetry and the visual arts in the fourteenth century, linking this relationship in particular to the Tuscan tradition of the dolce stil nuovo and Dante. Schlosser points to moments throughout the Commedia where Dante demonstrates his interest in the relationship between poetry and the visual arts, including the poet’s description of himself drawing angels on the day of Beatrice’s death. The Commedia, Schlosser argues, is in fact the origin of modern history of art in that it contains Dante’s reflection on the work of Cimabue and Giotto, which in turn up a tradition of the “artist.” There is also a brief reflection on Trecento frescoes where poetry plays an important role in visual representation (as, for example, Buffalmacco’s Trionfo della Morte in the Camposanto in Pisa).


Simonelli, Maria. “Il canto X del Purgatorio.” Studi danteschi 33 (1955-56): 121-45.

In this essay, Simonelli reads Purgatorio 10 incorporates an important theological approach into the scholarly discourse regarding the canto, arguing that the canto is not merely a commentary on the figurative arts. Where prior to her essay the canto was looked over as one merely of ‘transizione’ or a ‘canto strutturale’, the canto inspired the interests of art historians alone. Simonelli argues however that it is important to remember the theological implications of this canto. Situated as it is at the beginning of Purgatory proper, the canto signals the beginning of Dante’s journey toward divine knowledge, a first step in which Dante comes to know humility, the foundational virtue needed to acquire the other virtues.


Gmelin, Hermann. “Canto X: The Art of God.” (original edition: 1964). In Lectura Dantis: Purgatorio, edited by Allen Mandelbaum, Anthony Oldcorn, and Charles Ross. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008. 95-102.

This close reading of Canto X focusses on the fact that the poet invents examples of his being educated by Pride, employing the figurative arts in order to produce an objective representation of his thoughts on penitence. Reading in context with St. Bonaventure, Gmelin also focusses on the central significance of Mary, whose virtues are antitheses of the seven sins. 

Roedel, Reto. “Il canto X.” In Letture del Purgatorio, edited by Vittorio Vettori. Milan: Marzorati, 1965. 111-129.

In his reading of Purgatorio 10, Roedel argues that the description of the marble reliefs is not simply a rhetorical device intended as ornamentation. Rather, in their resemblance to the Romanesque art of Nicola Pisano, Arnolfo di Cambio, and Giovanni Pisano, Dante’s description of the reliefs is an aesthetic reflection. The author provides thorough discussions of each of the three marble reliefs of Purgatorio 10. This article constitutes the beginning of and contributes to a long scholarly tendency, still alive now, to treat Purgatorio 10 and 12 in terms of Dante’s stance on poetry and aesthetics, which is to say, in terms of metapoetry.

Ulivi, Ferruccio. “Dante e l’interpretazione figurativa.” Convivium 34 (1966): 269-92.

Ulivi considers Dante’s relationship to the visual arts in light of the poet’s inherently figurative approach to poetry, reflecting on four particular areas in which scholarly consideration of Dante and the visual arts has fallen: 1) Dante’s relationship with the arts in his own lifetime; 2) the aesthetic ideology of Dante as a poet; 3) the possible influences that may have influenced Dante’s visual formulations; and 4) the Commedia’s influence on the figurative arts. Ulivi considers the visual experience of the Commedia in terms of Auerbach’s “figuralism” which, in the widest sense of the term, implies an entire mode of interpretation different from allegorical or symbolic interpretation. Figural representation allows that reality cannot be rendered verisimilarly, and in this way, Ulivi argues, it is much in line with the representative mode of the visual arts.

Hollander, Robert. “God’s Visible Speech.” In Allegory in Dante’s Commedia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. 297-300.

Hollander reads the marble reliefs of Purgatorio 10 in conjunction with the writing of the Gate of Hell (Inferno 8) and in the sky of the heaven of Jupiter (Paradiso 18), arguing all are instances of speech made visible. That is, he interprets “visibile parlare” as reified objects, as opposed to linguistic phenomena.


Tateo, Francesco. “Teologia e ‘arte’ nel canto X del Purgatorio.” In Idem., Questioni di poetica dantesca. Bari: Adriatica, 1972. 139-171.

In a close-reading of Purgatorio 10, Tateo explains the connection between Dante’s theology of humility and his attention to the artistic. Tateo emphasizes the significance of considering or meditating on art, as evinced in Purgatorio 10. Especially in Dante’s world, the spiritual meanings of external signs were considered the soul’s guide toward morality. Above and beyond mere ekphrasis, Dante represents himself in this canto, standing before the miracle of a divine art which has no equal in nature. Ultimately, as Tateo argues, Dante considers poetry itself as able to summarize the skills and effects of the other arts and therefore as the greatest aid in his moral education.

Fiero, Gloria K. “Dante’s Ledge of Pride: Literary Pictorialism and the Visual Arts.” Journal of European Studies 5 (1975): 1-17.  Web:

Fiero uses the term ‘pictorialism’ to describe Dante’s recollection or recreation of a representational work of art, real or imaginary. This article first discusses the three marble reliefs and their meaning in Purgatorio 10 in order to understand how they are reflective of Dante’s attitude toward the visual arts. Fiero also examines the scholastic association of art with order to explain Dante’s use of the plastic arts in Purgatory. Finally, the article also suggests specific ancient or medieval visual sources that may have inspired Dante’s reliefs.


Delcorno, Carlo. “Dante e l’exemplum medievale’ in Lettere Italiane 35, 1 (1983): 3-28, esp. 15-24.

Delcorno treats, in particular, the “artificio” of Dante in Purgatorio 12, arguing that there is an analogy between the distribution of the examples of pride and approaches to preaching as evidenced in the medieval artes praedicandi. Specifically, Delcorno suggests a passage from the Summa vitiorum of the Dominican Guglielmo Peraldo as a possible source for Dante in his structure of exempla of the prideful. Delcorno was among the first to draw attention to similarities between the distribution of these exempla and the devices employed by medieval preachers in composing homilies.

Vickers, Nancy J. “Seeing is Believing: Gregory, Trajan, and Dante’s Art.” Dante Studies 101 (1983), 67-85.

Vickers offers a meta-poetical reflection on Purgatorio 10, and with particular attention to the figure of Trajan who appears twice in the Commedia (Purgatorio 10 and Paradiso 22). Vickers points to a number of textual inspirations for the image of Trajan and the widow in Purgatorio 10, in particular, hagiographic and scriptural (the Vita of Trajan attributed to Gregory the Great and Luke 18). In the former, the deeds of the pagan Trajan are recognized by Gregory the Great as a scriptural model, as is noted in the Whitby Life. In the latter, Vickers recognizes a scriptural sub-text in Luke 18, which also addresses the question of prayer and humility. Further, Vickers points out parallel iconographic models in manuscript illuminations of Purgatorio X and Luke 18.

Migiel, Marilyn. “Between Art and Theology: Dante’s Representation of Humility.” Stanford Italian Review 5 (1985): 141-159.

In Migiel’s reading of Purgatorio 10, she considers Dante’s poetry of descriptive realism and artistic ornamentation in light of other possible discourses, in particular theological ones. Migiel responds to the readings of Simonelli and Tateo, asking questions regarding the specific mode of representation (marble relief) chosen by Dante in order to represent the virtue of humility. In particular, Migiel raises the important theological question regarding the relationship between human bodily features and movements (as inscribed in God’s marble art), and the visible signs of humility with which Dante is so concerned in these canti of Purgatory.

Adams, Shirley. “Ut picture poesis: The Aesthetics of Motion in Pictorial Narrative and the Divine Comedy.” Stanford Italian Review 7 (1987): 77-94.

Adams considers Dante’s commentary on Italian painting in Purgatorio 10 in light of Purgatorio 32 (where Dante refers to himself as a painter) as speaking for the underlying poetics of the Commedia. Together, the relevant passages on painting Purg. 10, 34-93 and Purg. 32, 64-70) represent the verbal representation of “monumental pictorial narrative” (p. 81), that is, they are visual renderings of texts. Adams argues that in verbally rendering these images, Dante is interested not in verisimilitude but rather in convincingly rendering motion and attitude. Ecphrastic elaboration is usually written for the purposes of portraying motion (flight of Geryon, the revealing of the Eagle of Justice, etc.). Citing Otto Pächt’s “The Rise of Pictorial Narrative,” Vickers discusses medieval modes of representing movement in a static medium and the ways in which Dante dealt with this problem.

Casagrande, Gino. “Esto Visibile Parlare: A Synaesthetic Approach to Purgatorio 10.55-63.” In Lectura Dantis Newberryana, edited by Paolo Cherchi and Antonio C. Mastrobuono. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988. 21-57.

This essay considers kinesics – the study of nonlinguistic, nonvocal forms of human behaviour which are intended to designate semantic units – in reference to the marble reliefs of Purgatorio 10, considering, in particular, the intersensorial perception, or synaesthesia, which Dante the Pilgrim experiences while viewing the images, hearing the lauds, and smelling the incense. The nonverbal elements of the reliefs convey their message through a silent communication with the Pilgrim’s senses. While it is true, Casagrande argues, that Dante insists on the discordance of his senses here, the same verses also reveal the pilgrim’s synaesthetic experience, that is, the pilgrim’s eyes see the reliefs even as they perceive the lauds and the fragrance of the incense. This amounts to the synaesthetic working of the pilgrim’s intellect whereby sight, hearing, and smell are blended together to form the poetic expression.


Barolini, Teodolinda. “Re-Presenting what God Presented: The Arachnean Art of the Terrace of Pride.” In The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 122-142.

Often cited, this essay considers the Pilgrim’s encounter with the marble engravings of Pugatorio 10 and 12 as the poet’s consideration of the principles of mimesis and representation. Dante presents an art that surpasses nature and that is capable of going beyond representation. For Barolini, Dante’s “visibile parlare” is the miracle of a visual medium created by God and endowed with the verbal medium of speech. The visual sculptures themselves somehow speak and the artist responsible for them, God, produced a real, living art, unlike any other visible art. In reproducing God’s art, Dante the poet, however, must resort to dialogue. Barolini also reflects on the eagle of Justice in Paradiso 19. According to the author, Ovid’s account of Arachne in Metamorphoses shares with Dante’s Purgatory an authorial self-consciousness underscored by the common use of ekphrasis and the link with the vice of pride. Ovid’s story in fact provides a framework within which to read Purgatorio 10-12, not only suggesting the enforced humility of the human artist but also establishing, e converso, Dante’s poetic importance as an aemulus of God’s art.

Vescovo, Piermario. “Ecfrasi con spettatore (Dante, Purgatorio, X-XVII)” in Lettere italiane 45, 3 (1993): 335-60. Web:

Vescovo treats ekphrasis and the affective results of vision which speak to the spectator’s intellect through the senses, in terms of the medieval tradition of the ars memoriae. The essays rigorously interprets ‘visibile parlare’ in terms of mnemonic traditions described by Francis Yates and Lina Bolzoni (see esp., pp. 344-355). Vescovo recognizes a mnemonically progressive movement through bipartite exempla in Purgatorio: 1) representational images – humility in canto 10 and pride punished in canto 12, 2) inspirational voices – charity in canto 13 and envy punished in canto 14, 3) visions – the meek in canto 15 and ire punished in canto 17. Vescovo calls this a mnemonic journey (“un itinerario di rammemorazione”) and comments as well on the material mediums through which the exempla are sensorially transmitted.

Franke, William. “Reality and Realism in Purgatorio X.” In Dante’s Interpretative Journey, idem. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 171-177.

Franke discusses the thematic focus of Purgatorio 10 as didactic, mimetic realism as seen in the marble reliefs, God’s art. Franke argues that Dante’s “visibile parlare” does not intend reified form, or objects, but rather language. The marble images do not convey meaning through visible appearance. Produced by God, such images are indicative of the Commedia’s theme of the metaphysical dimension of language. This reading contrasts, for example, with R. Hollander’s, who reads the marble reliefs in conjunction with the writing of the Gate of Hell and in the sky of the heaven of Jupiter as instances of speech made visible. Franke instead considers these images not as icons, but rather as embodying a practical application in the life of individuals capable of achieving humility. The mimeticism of the images, the author argues do not so much coincide with what is ‘real’ as they instigate a process of interpretation and the edification of whosoever interprets.

Chiampi, James T. “Visible Speech, Living Stone, and the Names of the Word” in Rivista di studi italiani 14, 1 (1996): 1-12.

Chiampi here considers marble reliefs of Purgatorio 10 in conjunction with 2 Peter 2-8, where Peter names Christ the “living stone.” In the canto in question, Dante describes a mountain that seems to move and marble reliefs that seem to speak, “living stones.” By contrast, the reliefs representing examples of pride punished are set in the floor of the terrace in canto 12 are like funerary reliefs, “dead stones.” Similarly, the writing above the gates of Hell are described in Inferno 8 as “la scrittura morta” (v. 127). The “dead stones” of Inferno then are undone, argues Chiampi, by the living stones of Purgatorio 10 which promise future grace.

Herzman, Ronald B. “‘Visibile Parlare’: Dante’s Purgatorio 10 and Luca Signorelli’s San Brizio Frescoes” in Studies in Iconography 20 (1999): 155-183.

Herzman’s offers an art historical approach to canto 10, considering Dante’s alleged influence on Luca Signorelli’s theological and political vision in the Capella di San Brizio in Orvietto. He focusses in particular on three frescoes that appear on the covers of Mark Musa’s translation of the Commedia: The Damned in Hell (Inferno), The Calling of the Elect into Heaven (Paradiso), and a small roundel from the lower part of the chapel that depicts a purgatorial scene (Purgatorio).


Battaglia Ricci, Lucia. “Viaggio e visione tra immaginario visivo e invenzione letteraria.” In Dante da Firenze all’aldilà, edited by Michelangelo Picone. Florence: Cesati, 2001. 15-73.

In this contribution, Battaglia Ricci reflects on visual points of reference to which Dante turned to plan his vision of Hell, Pugatory, and Paradise, arguing for the interdependent relationship between image and text in medieval culture. She considers, for example, the image of Dante’s Lucifer in light of Giudizi Universali in Florence and Padua (the baptistry mosaic attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo and the fresco in the Scrovegni Chapel by Giotto). While it is true, Battaglia Ricci argues, that homiletic traditions demonstrate the importance of the image, the Commedia/image relationship is particularly reflective of the profound role of the image in medieval culture. The image enabled viewers to mentally internalize the image and its teachings in order to facilitate the viewers’ visionary, or mystic experiences. For example, Battaglia Ricci’s work on the Vitae Patrum as a textual guide through the frescoes in the Camposanto Vecchio in Pisa is indicative of the role of images in the internalization of divine scenes, and she briefly recalls some of her arguments from her relevant work here.

McGregor, James H.. “Reappraising ekphrasis in Purgatorio 10” in Dante Studies with the Annual Report of the Dante Society 121 (2003). 25-41. Web:

McGregor treats Purgatorio X as ekphrasis, arguing that Dante’s marble reliefs engage primarily with a tradition of visual iconography. While the presentation of the scenes does not necessarily reflect knowledge of works by Giotto or Cimabue, the ekphrasis of Purgatorio 10 does reflect normal visual iconography Dante would have witnessed.

Mazzotta, Giuseppe. “The Theology of History and the Perspective of Art (Purgatorio X-XII).” In Image Makers and Image Breakers: Proceedings of a St. Michael’s College Symposium (Toronto 1-2 March 2002), edited by Jennifer A. Garris. Ottawa: Legas, 2003. 71-82.

Mazzotta focusses on the Pilgrim’s physical and moral failure to be able to identify the figures in the marble reliefs of Purgatorio 10, suggesting that art itself is inherently connected to pride as it pertains to the immoderate desire of self-excellence. In this canto, Mazzotta argues, images do not merely convey a moral or exemplary meaning. Rather, they serve to allow man to take measure of himself within the divine order. The ambiguity of images clouds man’s ability to view both his inner self and God’s work, even as they serve man as windows on how to better understand ethics, history, and theology.

Venturi, Gianni. “Una ‘Lectura Dantis’ e l’uso dell’ecfrasi: Purgatorio X.” In Ecfrasi: Modelli ed esempi fra Medioevo e Rinascimento I, edited by Gianni Venturi and Monica Farnetti. Rome: Bulzoni, 2004. 15-31.

Venturi’s reads of Purgatorio X as Dante’s consideration of the relationship between visual art and poetry. The contribution offers a comprehensive review of the contemporaneous scholarship on “visibile parlare” as ekphrasis. Also see Lucia Battaglia Ricci’s contribution in the same volume.

Picone, Michelangelo. “Dante nel girone dei superbi (Purg. X-XII).” L’Alighieri. Rassegna dantesca 46, n. s. 26 (2005): 97-110.  Web:

In his reading of the three canti of Purgatorio that treat pride/humility, he reflects on two interconnected problems that Dante addresses: firstly, the categorization imperative that of allows the poet to claim his art as a “poema sacro” and secondly, the relationship between the arts (text and image – poetry and painting/sculpture). Picone argues that Dante (but also Petrarch and Boccaccio) took up the subject of the visual arts in order to develop a broader metatextual reflection on his own art as representation of the divine. For example, in Purg. 11, vv. 94-99, where artists are described as being surpassed by their masters (Cimabue by Giotto, and “Guido” by another “Guido”), Picone recognizes a clear gesture on Dante’s part to set up his own art as superseding all these. Dante’s description of the marble reliefs imitates God’s art, and in its representation of the divine, it becomes the “poema sacro.”

Ciccuto, Marcello. “All’ombra della Garisenda. Preistoria del visibile nella cultura poetica di Dante.” In Idem, Figure d’artista. La nascita delle immagini alle origini della letteratura. Fiesole: Cadmo, 2006. 13-53.

In this essay, Ciccuto examines a little-known series of vernacular texts that established a relationship between poetry and the visual arts well before Dante volunteered the phrase ‘visibile parlare.’ Ciccuto points to a number of sonnets of the stilnovistic tradition preceding the Commedia that, rejecting the earlier Guittonian tradition with its overzealous abstractions, focussed instead on the coherence between order and nature. In this essay, Ciccuto also considers Dante’s youthful involvement in an intense exchange of opinions regarding the question of figure, as evidenced in Vita Nuova 34 where the poet denounces the empirical visibilia of Guittonian tradition in favour of contemplative mnemonic imagines that allow for the intellectual union with his beloved (see esp. pp. 32-41).

Treherne, Matthew. “Ekphrasis and Eucharist: The Poetics of Seeing God’s Art in Purgatorio X” in The Italianist 26 (2006). 177-196. Web:

This article discusses the ‘ekphrasis’ of Purgatorio X as Dante’s reflection on discussions regarding the Eucharist within medieval Christian doctrine and practice. Treherne reads against a common scholarly assumption that poetic language triumphs over visual art in this canto. According to Treherne, this canto describes the limits of sensory experience and perception of the divine, the relationship between which was much debated in discussions of the Eucharist. Traherne finds similarities to the worshipper’s experience of the Eucharist as evidenced (in theological texts) in particular in Dante’s representation of the senses in this canto. Thus, Purgatorio 10 is one of a series of instances during the Pilgrim’s progress toward God which allude to the difficulty in interpreting signs.


Camilletti, Fabio. “Dante Painting an Angel: Image-making, Double-oriented Sonnets, and Dissemblance in Vita Nuova 34.” In Desire in Dante and the Middle Ages, edited by Manuele Gragnolati, Tristan Kay, Elena Lombardi, and Francesco Southerden. London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2012. 71-84.

In this book contribution, Camilletti questions the degree to which post-Enlightenment categories of subjectivity (e.g. death, loss, desire, sublimation) may be useful in considerations of Dante’s Vita Nuova. Considering the role of ‘imago’ in Dante’s process of poetic composition in VN XXXIV, Camilletti argues that Dante’s concretization of the ‘imago’ (in particular, the angel depicted in VN XXXIV) ought to be reconsidered in relation to nineteenth-century constructions of courtly love – in particular, the tendency to retrospectively project post-enlightenment categories onto Dante’s text. Camilletti argues that the angel is not necessarily a simulacrum in which the deceased lady is sublimated. Instead Dante’s ‘donna angelicata’ sets up an explicit tension between the material externalization of the angel that Dante is in the act of drawing and the internal consideration of his melancholy. Dante’s self-representation in the act of painting is not merely an allusion to the internal conceptualization of loss (or in psychoanalytical terms, “repression”), but rather an allusion to the indeterminacy of visuality, thus, allowing Dante the means to explore the nature of figurality and representation.

Leone, Marco. “Il canto X del Purgatorio, fra poesia e arte.” In Lectura Dantis Lupiensis I, edited by Valerio Marucci and Valter Leonardo Puccetti. Ravenna: Longo, 2013. 9-21.

Leone offers a comprehensive review of the many various avenues of scholarly interpretation which Dante’s ‘visibile parlare’ has inspired. The author argues that Dante’s employment of the term revives the ancient topos regarding the relationship between art, nature, and mimesis, combining it with another ancient topos concerning the complex relationship between the visual arts and poetry. Taking many preceding scholarly readings into consideration, Leone provides a thorough commentary on the category of ‘visibile parlare’ as a dynamic of a larger, over-riding aspect of the Commedia – the fusion of theology and poetry.

Fajen, Robert. “Lectura Dantis: Purgatorio X” in Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 87-88 (2012-2013): 98-117.

In his reading of Purgatorio X, Fajen argues that the formula ‘visible parlare’ demonstrates how, for Dante, art is only legitimate if it establishes spiritual and intellectual meaning with the word. The appearance of art, therefore, does not delude or serve as a poor representation of truth, but rather guides human knowledge toward that truth. Verse 133, “la qual fa del non ver vera rancura,” Fajen argues gives shape to the basic form of Dante’s poetics: “non-truth creates truth, fiction creates reality, false appearances trigger true feelings.” At the same time, however, the representation of divine art announces the limits of human art, and in this canto, Dante humbly presents the limits of his own poetry.

Malavasi, Massimiliano. “Del buon uso della superbia: una nota sui rilievi di Purgatorio X.” In Per beneficio e concordia di studio: Studi danteschi offerti a Enrico Malato per i suoi ottant’anni, edited by Andrea Mazzucchi. Cittadella: Bertoncello Artigrafiche, 2015. 493-505.

This book contribution discusses the psychological and ethical progression of the three scenes described in the marble reliefs of Purgatorio X. These scenes represent their respective figures at the centre of a moral demonstration whereby the protagonists, portrayed as members of increasingly more socially complex circumstances (the adolescent Mary, King David, Emperor Trajan), are shown making decisions that are difficult but right. The author also briefly discusses the technical device of the verbal description of art, noting that the concept of “ekphrasis,” imposed by nineteenth and twentieth century criticism on the canto, was not advanced with any specific theory in classical or medieval rhetoric.

Wolf, Gerhard. “Dante’s Eyes and the Abysses of Seeing: Poetical Optics and Concepts of images in the Divine Comedy.” In Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe, edited by Alina Payne. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University. 2015. 122-137.

Wolf considers the Commedia in light of fourteenth-century optics and notions of seeing, examining in particular the relationship between what in the fourteenth century was thought to be visible and what could be represented visually. There are analogies, Wolf argues, between the concepts of artistic mimesis and the psychology of perception. Throughout the Commedia, the Poet formulates problems regarding the Pilgrim’s ability to see in Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. Often, however, as Wolf points out, the Poet describes the optical effect, or vision of God’s art in explicitly “pictorial” terms (Purg. 10, Purg. 12, Purg. 32, Purg. 33, Par. 33, etc.).

Terzoli, Maria Antonietta. “Visibile parlare: ecfrasi e scrittura nella Commedia.” In Dante und die Bildenden Künste, edited by Maria Antonietta Terzoli and Sebastian Schütye. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016. 23-48.

Terzoli prioritizes the marble reliefs given their location in the poem, as the first visions that the Pilgrim sees upon entering Purgatory proper. The author examines ekphrasis in Purgatorio X and XII, arguing that Dante implicitly preserves the medieval conception of the superiority of the word over the image. The author also considers Dante’s ekphrasis and its relationship to virgilian ekphrasis.

Keleman, János. “Ekphrasis, non-existing images, impossible figures: Purgatorio 10-12, Paradiso 33.” In Boccaccio, Dante e Verdone, edited by Antonio Sorella. Florence: Cesati, 2016. 137-148.

Keleman considers the differences between the visual and the verbal arts with reference to Purgatorio X and XII and argues in favour of the “linguistic primacy hypothesis” – that is, that the primary semiotic system is natural language, or verbal communication takes precedence over other forms of communication. The author establishes that there are theoretical differences between the verbal description of existing works of art and the creation of non-existing works of art by verbal means. In Purgatorio, Dante practices the latter, which represents a different degree of evocative strength than the former. Dante’s choice of a narrative language for the visual representation of the Purgatorial examples of humility, argues Keleman, reflects his conception of visual art as narrative art. Further, Dante’s use of the words ‘visibile parlare’ may suggest that Dante recognized an intrinsic linguistic nature of images. In the final vision of the Commedia (Paradiso XXX, 114-117), Keleman argues that Dante describes a figure which is impossible to represent, as is shown by the many different attempts by artists to render this vision. Dante’s impossible picture is a representation of divine reality which is ultimately unrepresentable.

Further Readings:  

References to “Visibile parlare” are also to be found in other Lecturae Dantis on Purgatorio 10 and 12. Among these, see:

  • Aleardo Sacchetto. “Pietà e giustizia nel canto di Traiano (X del Purgatorio).” In Dieci letture dantesche. Florence: Le Monnier, 1960. 111-129.
  • Andreas Kablitz, “Jenseitige Kunst oder Gott als Bildhauer. Die Reliefs in Dantes Purgatorio (Purg. X-XII).” In Mimesis und Simulation, edited by Andreas Kablitz and Gerhard Neumann. Freiburg: Rombach, 1988. 309-358.
  • Lucia Battaglia Ricci. “‘Come […] le tombe terragne portan segnato’:” lettura del dodicesimo canto del Purgatorio.” In Ecfrasi: Modelli ed esempi fra Medioevo e Rinascimento I, edited by Gianni Venturi and Monica Farnetti. Rome: Bulzoni, 2004. 33-63.
  • Giuseppe A. Camerino. “I limiti di arte e natura: di Purg. X e di alcuni altri luoghi danteschi.” In Letteratura, verità, e vita: Studi in ricordo di Gorizio Viti, edited by Paolo Viti. Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2005. 17-28.
  • Emerico Giachery. Il canto X del Purgatorio. Rome: Graphisoft, 2006.
  • Eugenio Ragni. “Canto X: Umiltà, superbia e ‘visibile parlare’.” In Lectura Dantis Romana. Cento Canti per cento anni, edited by Enrico Malato and Andrea Mazzucchi. Rome: Salerno, 2014. 266-297.
  • Patricia Oster. “‘Dove si puote ciò che si vuole:’ Gottes Bildkunst im X Canto des Purgatorio” in Deutsches Dante-Jahrbuch 91 (2016): 79-94.
  • Paola Vecchi. “Purgatorio X: In cammino verso la pazienza.” In Lectura Dantis Bononiensis VI, edited by Emilio Pasquini and Carlo Galli. Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2017. 149-164.
  • Beatrice Stasi. “‘Perché si teme officio non commesso:’ I canti della superbia nel Purgatorio.” In Lectura Dantis Lupiensis 5, edited by Valerio Marrucci and Valter Leonardo Puccetti. Ravenna: Longo: 2018. 95-131.

For Dante’s ‘Visibile parlare’ and Visual Culture and Visual Arts, see:

  • Marcello Ciccuto. L’immagine del testo: episodi di cultura figurativa nella letteratura italiana. Roma: Bonacci, 1990.
  • Marcello Ciccuto. Icone della parola. Immagine e scrittura nella letteratura delle Origini. Modena: Mucchi, 1995.
  • Marcello Ciccuto. Figure d’artista. La nascita delle immagini alle Origini della Letteratura. Fiesole: Cadmo, 2002. (see above)
  • Maria Monica Donato, Lucia Battaglia Ricci, Michelangelo Picone, Giuseppe Z. Zanichelli, eds. Dante e le arti visive. Milan: Unicopli, 2006.
  • Patricia Lee Rubin, “The Eye of the Beholder.” In Idem., Images and Identity in Fifteenth- Century Florence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 135-173.
  • Wolf-Dietrich Löhr, “Dantes Täfelchen, Cennini Zeichenkiste: ritratto, disegno und fantasia als Instrumente der Bilerzeugung im Trecento,” in Das Mittelalter: Perspektiven mediävistischer Forschung 13 (2008): 148-179.
  • Gerhard Wolf. “Dante’s Eyes and the Abysses of Seeing: Poetical Optics and Concepts of images in the Divine Comedy.” In Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe, edited by Alina Payne. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University. 2015. 122-137. (see above)

How to quote this paper:

L. Faibisoff. “ISCAD Annotated Bibliography: Visibile Parlare,International Seminar on Critical Approaches to Dante. Website, May 2019. Online: