Two Early Interpretations Of Dante's Veltro

Dante's ten heavens By Edmund Garratt Gardner

ABOUT three years after Dante's death, Ser Graziolo dei Bambaglioli, then Chancellor of Bologna, published his famous commentary upon the Inferno. His position, at the very beginning of critical study of the Divina Commedia, gives peculiar interest and importance to his attempt to solve the problem, perhaps insoluble, of what Dante really meant by his prophecy of the coming of the Veltro. It is needless to say that for him the Wolf is Cupidity, radix omnium malorum, and that no anticipation of modern political interpretations is to be found in his work.

Molti son gli animali, a cui s' ammoglia,
E piu saranno ancora, infhi che il Yeltro
Verra, che la fara morir con doglia.
Questi non cibera terra ne peltro,
Ma sapienza e amore e virtute,
E sua nazion sara tra feltro e feltro.
Di quell' utnile Italia fia salute,
Per cui mori la vergine Cammilla,
Eurialo, e Turuo, e Niso di ferute.
Questi la caccera per ogni villa,
Fin che 1'avra rimessa nell' inferno,
La onde invidia prima dipartilla.
Inf. i. 100.1

Graziolo mentions that a great variety of views were held even then upon these lines (varii varia sentiant), but declares that they ought clearly to be understood in two ways, in a divine sense and in a human sense, both of which he works out in detail. In the divine sense, this Veltro is that Divine and Ineffable Wisdom, of which it is written, " Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sin of the world," and, " He shall come again to judge both the living and the dead"; and Graziolo sees this further confirmed in the verse about earth and pelf, for no man can be free from sin save the Son of God.2 He refers this driving back of the "Wolf to Hell to the Last Judgment, interpreting tra feltro e feltro as inter sceleratos impios et peccatores, these being figured by " felt" as an indifferent cloth, pannus vilissimus. In the human and more immediate sense, the Veltro is some Pope or Emperor, or some other hero who will arise, lofty in prudence, sublime in virtue and authority, under whose wise and just rule men will walk in the paths of righteousness and truth, and wickedness will be confounded. By the influence of the heavens this future leader or prince is to come into the world, and establish universal peace beneath his sway, as under Augustus when our Lord was born. In this sense, we are to understand by feltro e feltro that this wise and just ruler is to spring from a humble stock; " for since felt is a very lowly material, so by it are figured his parents and race."

This rare mediaeval puzzle had lost none of its fascination when Benvenuto da Imola lectured, half a century later : " What then is this Veltro," he asks, "about which many have said false and frivolous things, and about which there are so many contentions and opinions ?" Benvenuto aptly refers his hearers to Virgil's fourth Eclogue, where he speaks of the birth of a child who shall reform the world, and beneath whom the golden age will be renewed :—

lam redit et Virgo, redeunt Saturnia regna;
lam nova progenies cselo demittitur alto;

and to Purgatorio xxii. 70, where Dante, through Statius, renders the lines into Italian:—

Secol si rinnuova;
Torna giustizia, e primo tempo umano,
E progenie discende dal ciel nuova.

Benvenuto holds that Dante wishes to imitate this Virgilian passage, and that just as Virgil's lines had been interpreted in two senses, the one referring to the nativity of Christ and the other to the birth of a child of Octavianus, so Dante's prophecy of the Veltro is to be understood both of Christ coming at the day of Judgment and of a future Roman Prince, who will reign in all wisdom and virtue, and punish the avarice of the pastors of the Church. Benvenuto scorns the notion that feltro can possibly refer to a. place, Feltre or Montefeltro, and interprets it as the heavens; Christ will come in the sky to judge the world, and the Roman Prince will be born under a good constellation and happy conjunction of stars. It will be observed that this explanation is strongly supported by Purgatorio xx. 13, where it is distinctly stated that the destroyer of the Wolf is to come through the circling of the celestial bodies (cf. Conv. iv. 21) ; and by Purgatorio xxxiii. 40, where Beatrice declares that a favourable constellation is at hand, under which the Messenger of God will slay the Harlot and the Giant. The analogy between felt and the heavens seems to Benvenuto peculiarly excellent : " It is indeed a beautiful and subtle similitude," he says; " for as felt is without texture, so is the sky without mixture, since it is a simple body." That this deliverer is especially called the salvation of Italy, Benvenuto supposes an allusion to the Roman Catholic Church, in obedience to whom lies salvation, but who should be humble and shut no one out from her fold; and in the second sense, to the future Prince being especially the saviour of oppressed Italy, whose Rome should be the seat of Papacy and Empire alike.

It seems indeed a highly plausible interpretation, that as Virgil in his life had sung of the foundation of the Roman Empire, and had darkly prophesied of the first coming of Christ, so now he should in the Divine Comedy foretell an approaching restoration of that same Empire, and, at the same time, announce mysteriously the second coming of Christ. The whole episode of Statius in the Purgatorio confirms this. Statius had been converted from the sin of Prodigality by a line in Virgil's AEneid, and had turned to Christianity through his prophecy of Christ's birth in the fourth Eclogue; so Dante, in Inferno i., cries to Virgil for help against the shewolf of Avarice, and, when about to commence under his guidance the journey which represents his own conversion to a better life, hears from his lips a prophecy of Christ's second coming. And in each case Virgil remained in darkness, and did not fully know the meaning of what he had said. His words helped Statius and Dante on the road of salvation, but aided not himself:—

Facesti come quei che va di notte,
Che porta il lume retro, e se non giova,
Ma dopo se fa le persone dotte.
Purg. xxii. 67.3

There is a further point of the greatest interest in Ser Graziolo's explanation of the Veltro, in that he connects it with one of Dante's own Canzoni. It is that famous Canzone of the Three Ladies, the authenticity of which, affirmed later by Pietro Alighieri and by Leonardo Bruni, is thus rendered certain by the testimony of Dante's contemporary. Speaking of the human Veltro, the earthly leader to come, under whose wise and just rule the human race will again turn to virtue and truth, Graziolo says :4 " And this is what our author himself certainly demonstrates, in that Canzone of his in the vulgar tongue which commences :—

Tre donne intonio al cor mi son venute:

when he mourns and laments in the person of justice and other virtues, for that they are despised and forgotten, where he says:—

Larghezza e Temperanza, e l'altre nate
Del nostro sangue mendicando vaimo;
Peri, se questo e danno,
Piangano gli occhi, e dogliasi la bocca
Degli uomini a cui tocca,
Che sono ai raggi di cotal ciel giunti;
Non noi, che semo dell' eterna rocca :
Che, se noi siamo or punti,
Noi pur saremo, e pur tornera gente,
Che questo dardo fara star lucente." 5

The Canzone is one of the noblest of Dante's later lyrics, and it is indeed well to have this contemporary testimony to its authenticity, even apart from what light it may throw upon the question of the Veltro. Greater than he have been banished, Dante tells us. Three mystical Ladies are exiles even as he is, and appear to him in his banishment. They are Righteousness or Justice, and her spiritual children ; and since these are his companions in misfortune, the poet holds his exile as an honour :—

L'esilio, che m'e dato, onor mi tegno.

This noble line is a summary of the whole of the Canzone; and it is of much pathetic interest that it should have been so studied and its authenticity confirmed by Ser Graziolo, who was himself in a few years to experience, like Dante, the bitterness of unmerited banishment, and, like him, to learn (as one of the little poems on the moral virtues, with which he solaced his exile, puts it) how honour is gained in noble suffering :—

Come del bel soffrir s'acquista onore.

1 Many are the animals with whom she [the Wolf] weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.
He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom and on love and virtue;
'Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;
Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour,
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds ;
Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

The virtute of line 104 should perhaps be rendered Poioer: power, wisdom, love, being the attributes of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. To thus write Feltro for feltro, as most modern editors do, is to take as proved one special interpretation of a very -difficult question.

2 The line may, however, refer to our Lord's words to Pilate: -" My kingdom is not of this world"

3 Thou didst as he who walketh in the night,
Who bears his light behind, which helps him not,
But wary makes the persons after him.

4 'Il Commento all Inferno di Graziolo de' Bambaglioli, edito per cura del prof. A. Fiammazzo. Udine, 1892.

5 " Liberality and temperance, and the others born of our blood go begging; wherefore, if this be loss, let the eyes weep and the mouth bewail of men whom it concerns, who are come beneath the rays of such a heaven. Not we, who are of the eternal rock. For, though we are now oppressed, we still shall be, and a people shall yet return who will make Love's dart be bright."


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