“L’ardüa sua opra” (Par., XXXI, 34): Architectural Aspects of Dante’s Rome

From Firenze University Press Journal: Opus Incertum

Theodore J. Cachey, University of Notre Dame

Chiara Sbordoni, University of Notre Dame

The central place of Rome in Dante’s map of the world has long been recognized, beginning with the city’s first appearance in his oeuvre in a key passage of the Vita nova that describes pilgrims passing through Florence on their way to Rome to see the Veronica, “the blessed image that Jesus Christ left us as a visible sign of his most beautiful countenance (which my lady [Beatrice] be-holds in glory) […]” (XL, 1). The thematic role of Rome in the Commedia, especially in opposition to that of Florence, has, moreover, recently been the object of renewed commentary emphasizing how Dante’s movement from Florence to Rome in the poem reflects the post-exilic evolution of the author’s political thought from that of a Florentine Guelph to that of an imperial Ghibelline.

The specifically architectural and structural dimensions and resonances of Dante’s Rome, however, have not received particular attention. Our aim in this article, there-fore, is to briefly illustrate the potential critical value of an architectural lens through which to view the place of Rome in the poem. Focusing on the Eternal City’s monumental and urban features and their placement in the order of the poem reveals how the city was for Dante, paradoxically, both central and liminal. While Rome is central to Dante’s political ideology, like the poem itself, it is at the threshold between this world and the next. A neuralgic meta-architectural literary theme, Rome can serve as a point of departure for investigating the structure and status of the poem itself taken as an artistic artifact fashioned in imitation of the divine architect: “Colui che volse il sesto a lo stremo del mondo, e dentro ad esso distinse tanto occulto e manifesto” (Par, XIX, 40–42).

The topic of Dante and architecture is not new6. Our focus on Rome attempts a new approach that combines different features of past discus-sions of this traditional theme with a new perspective on cartography and its role in shaping Dante’s poetic treatment of Rome and its architecture. Alongside revolutionary developments in art, architecture and urban planning that characterized the Italian Duecento, advances in cartography reflected a new spatial sensibility that informed Dante’s mapping of Rome in the poem. The tradition of maps of Rome, featuring bird’s-eye views of stylized walls and selections of principal monuments contained within them that went back to the twelfth century, was evolving during the late Duecento and early Trecento under the influence of modern empirical forms of mapping. In fact, maps of both the Mediterranean basin and of Italy, including local or regional territories had appeared: the mappaemundi and maps of Italy and Rome of Pietro Vesconte and Fra Paolino Veneto are contemporary or nearly contemporary to Dante.

Dante’s writings clearly reflect this new cartographic culture and express a cartographic impulse, for example, in the tenth chapter of the first book of the De vulgari eloquentia, where the exile’s appeal for a literary-cultural unification of the peninsula is rooted in the map of Italy10; while the Commedia transmits the most detailed verbal cartographic representation of the peninsula to come down to us from the period11.The poem, in fact, functions at one level as a map of the world in the tradition of medieval mappaemundi with Rome featured as one of its central cosmological and geographical points of reference. It also functions as a map of the eternal city in the tradition of the iconographic representations of Rome in books and maps, including more or less contemporary maps of the city which featured its principal architectural and ur-ban monuments in an iconic fashion. Dante’s privileging of Rome on his map of the world reflects his poetic and political ideology and in-vestments. Indeed, Jerusalem was typically located close or at the center of the inhabited world in Medieval mappaemundi.

Dante’s poem, on the other hand, gives special treatment to Rome and a number of its monuments, and combines the perspectives and cartographic idioms of itineraria, or road maps such as the Peutinger Map, and mappaemundi such as the Ebstorf map with that of regional/local maps of the city such as the Medieval Map of Rome in the Ambrosiana Library’s Manuscript of Solinus or Fra Paolino Veneto’s map of Rome in the Chronologia Magna.

The architectural dimensions and implications of the place of Rome in Dante’s poem are thus both global and local. ‘Architectural’ refers to both the poem’s structures as invented by its geometra or artifex, and to the architectural features of Rome that the poet maps along the itinerary of the poem. On the one hand, Rome functions as a crucial node within the architectural network of the cosmological poem and the city is featured as destination of the poet- pilgrim-ex-ile Dante’s itinerary to “quella Roma onde Cris-to è romano” ( Purg., XXXII, 102). On the other hand, the journey is punctuated by Roman architectural monuments and urban sites along the way.

This itinerary of the journey to Rome is thus a vital, load-bearing structure within the architecture of the poem.The itinerary that we propose to chart in this contribution accordingly maps the progression of the pilgrim/poet through the three canticles Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Initially, in the style of the ‘traveler’s tale’, which according to the conventions of travel literature must contain marvels and curiosities, the poet references a marvel of contemporary Roman urban traffic control used to regulate the crowds of Jubilee pilgrims flowing to and from St. Peter’s across the Ponte Sant’An-gelo (Inf., XVIII, 28–33).

The bridge is the vehicle of a simile used to describe the two-way traffic of the first of ten ditches of the Inferno’s eighth circle of fraud, the Malebolge (or “evil-pouches”). In Hell the panderers and the seducers trudge in opposite directions on their circular pathways, or rather, what the poet pointedly describes as “eternal circlings”: “quelle cerchie etterne.” When the pilgrim and his guide turn to view the seduc-ers coming in the opposite direction at the canticle’s precise midpoint (Inf., XVIII, 70–72), the poet evokes the turning or pivot of the opposite movements of the heavens. The passage there-by links, in a kind of meta-architectural mise-en-abîme, the Roman urban architectural feature of the bridge to the architecture of the cosmos to that of the poem. The same meta-architectural literary strategy is employed by Dante in the Purgatorio in two key transitions of the second canticle dedicated to ‘passage’, that is, the process of penitential purification of the pilgrim/poet and of the souls of the saved.

In Purgatorio II, the port of Rome is assigned the unprecedented role within Dante’s poetic cosmology as the place of embarkment of all the saved souls bound for Mt. Purgatory (Purg., II, 100–105). Later, at the thresh-old of the “porta sacrata” (Purg., IX, 130: “sacred door”), the entrance of Purgatory proper, the po-et Dante compares the sound of the door turn-ing on its hingesto the creaking of the swinging door of the Roman treasury on the Capitoline hill forced open by Julius Caesar when he pushed past Quintus Caecilius Metellus, and plundered the coffers of the Roman Republic.Celestial Rome had been established as the pilgrim and the poem’s ultimate destination in the proem (Inf., I, 124–129), and the overarching trajectory of the journey is punctually recapitulated at the end of the Purgatorio: “Qui sarai tu po-co tempo silvano; / E sarai meco, sanza fine, cive / Di quella Roma onde Cristo è romano” (Purg., XXXII, 100–102), and at the end of the Paradiso at the entrance to the empyrean tenth heaven “Io, che al divino dall’umano, / all’eterno dal tempo era venuto, / E di Fiorenza in popol giusto e sano […]”(Par., XXXI, 37–39).

This arrival at the empyrean is the last great structural transition in the cosmological architecture of the poem. It is represented in terms of an elaborate three-part comparison that involves at each stage the city of Rome as destination, beginning with the comparison of the pilgrim-poet’s wonder upon arrival at the ‘city-rose’ of the empyrean to that of barbarians from the north astound-ed by the sight of “Roma e l’ardüa sua opra,” in other words, the architectural wonders of Rome. The last comparison in the series, as we will see, brings Dante the author full-circle, returning him to the experience of pilgrims contemplating the Veronica at St. Peter’s in Rome as first featured in the Vita nova. Here the destination of the pilgrim’s devotion is figured as a culminating encounter which points beyond itself and concludes with the question of representation, that is, whether the Veronica corresponds to the reality of Christ’s effigy which the pilgrim-poet is about to directly encounter in the poem’s final vision: “Signor mio Gesù Cristo, Dio verace. / Or fu sì fatta la sembianza vostra?” (Par., XXXI, 107–108).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.13128/opus-13249

Read Full Text: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/oi/article/view/13249



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The University of Florence is an important and influential centre for research and higher training in Italy