Per Aspera ad Astra

To understand the literal and figurative meaning of the Divine Comedy, it is useful to understand the difference between symbol and allegory.
Loretta Secchi

This year marks the seventh centenary of the death of Dante Alighieri which the community is experiencing in a climate of expectation and hope. To understand the literal meaning and figurative language of the Divine Comedy, and the initiatory value it contains, it is useful to explain the difference between symbol and allegory. The term symbol is, according to some scholars, a phenomenon in which coexist a direct and an indirect sense. The dove, for example, in addition to being a bird (direct sense) is also a symbol of peace (indirect sense). The first content of the symbol does not disappear when the nature of the second is defined. Both are important. The relationship between direct and indirect sense always remains close and must be based on a relationship of analogy and similarity. The particularity of the symbol lies in the fact that it is never clearly interpretable in its hidden content. Allegory, on the other hand, is a rhetorical figure consisting of the construction of a discourse in which the literal meanings of individual terms take second place to the symbolic meaning of the whole, which generally refers to an order of metaphysical, philosophical and moral values. A message is allegorical when a text can be interpreted according to its direct or literal sense and according to one or more indirect and figurative senses. One of the differences between symbol and allegory is that the second meaning of allegory is never infinite and unattainable. Allegory conveys supersensible and hidden values, but nonetheless decipherable within a certain agreement, or shared code. These values represented as real and concrete, become allusive to a different reality and, more generally, need no further explanation. According to Umberto Eco, in the Middle Ages symbol and allegory were understood as being synonymous. Only in the Romantic era, with Wolfgang Goethe, did a first distinction between the two terms emerge. The procedure of allegory was particularly important for the men of the Middle Ages, for whom the earthly reality always referred to another, otherworldly and providential. They saw, therefore, in every aspect of natural reality, a symbolic meaning, a metaphysical pansemiosis. According to this religious and transcendent perspective, the signs impressed by God, to the manifest world, had to be properly deciphered.

Divine Comedy illuminates Florence - Domenico di Francesco, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence (1417-1491)

The symbol is therefore a reference to a lost unity that must be recomposed. Therefore, it is logical that every aspect of natural reality refers to a supernatural essence such that it corresponds perfectly to it. Thus God would reveal himself to men: through reality, material objects, and Holy Scriptures. In either case the literal sense of the things of nature, or of the sacred words, would be completed in their allegorical meaning. Dante, with his Comedy, created something similar: in the three canticles that compose it, within a continuous allegorical flow, historical facts and characters contemplated have both concrete and metaphorical value. A noted German critic, Erich Auerbach, has attempted to give a convincing rationale for the overbearing realism that characterizes Dante's eschatology. He noted how in the Middle Ages the historical events narrated in Sacred Scriptures had been interpreted as anticipation of other particularly significant events in the history of human salvation. For example, the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, spoken of in the Old Testament, is a historical fact, but it also prefigures another, that of the liberation of Christians from sin by Christ, a fact that concerns the New Testament. Therefore, the former is a "figure" of the latter and the latter is a "fulfillment" of the former.

Paolo and Francesca, Dante and Virgilio - Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence (1417-1491)

This conception, proper to the biblical exegesis, is also at the basis of the Divine Comedy, where each fact or character means not only itself but also the other of which it is a figure, while the other is the completion of the first and in some way includes it. The effort to translate Dante's theological poetry into iconic representation, or subsidiary illustration, entails accepting to see the anagogical value of the vision dangerously "confined" to the didactic, albeit highly aesthetic, content. Anagogical is what Dante calls "supersense," that is, the spiritual meaning that is added to the literal meaning, typical of the Holy Scriptures. Dante's path, explained by Russian semiotician Jurij M. Lotman, is the ascetic path of the pilgrim; while that of Ulysses is the journey of the explorer. Both, in the search for truth, proceed, per aspera ad astra, literally and metaphorically castaways of themselves: Touched by Pietas and dominated by heaven.


Previous | Next

Table of Contents

Beyond Foundations

Current Events