Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the Divine Comedy

February 26, 2009

Olivia Holmes' study is an investigation into a fundamental topic for scholars and readers of Dante and medieval literature in general: the complex and fascinating relationship that ties together love and ethics, morality and belief, philosophical inquiry and biblical truth.

More precisely, Holmes analyses the scriptural, classical and Romance traditions and archetypes that contributed to Dante's narrative dramatisation of the human struggle between different ethical choices.

Following a well-established tradition, the Italian poet transformed his meditations on ethics and epistemology into erotic tales of conflicting feelings for two different kinds of beloved, a whore-siren and a virgin-bride.

Holmes argues that the "other women" that appear on the symbolic scene of Dante's poetry represent both a departure from his beloved Beatrice - the virgin-bride representing morality - and a "necessary stage in the journey to love of God".

In this process of education towards charity, the flesh is first embraced, then refused and finally regained and admired in Heaven, where the glorified body of Beatrice shows its true divine meaning. Her metamorphosis is achieved through a masterful strategy of allusions to, among others, the Virgin, the bride of the Song of Songs, the Book of Wisdom and Boethius' Lady Philosophy.

While Holmes' central claim is far from invalid, it is also far from new. Undoubtedly, after seven centuries of Dante studies, major new interpretations have become increasingly rare.

The critical tradition can seem overwhelming and repetition is far from uncommon. Yet despite this, philological and historical research can still offer new insights into the hugely complex and nuanced world of Dante's oeuvre.

While Holmes' study is not lacking in philological rigour, her account of the conflict between caritas and cupiditas can, nonetheless, lapse into superficiality. Her discussion seems aimed at a non-specialist audience rather than investigating her important topic in depth.

It is, of course, appropriate to quote verses from the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom and the Song of Songs that stand behind Dante's creation of positive feminine figures such as Beatrice and Matelda. However, these sources are long established. To further our understanding, greater attention ought to have been paid to the iconographical, literary, liturgical and even political traditions that grew around the sacred texts on which Dante drew.

Although Holmes touches on many of Dante's cultural points of reference, she does not always give the details of the intertextual and interdiscursive interaction between the poet and his archetypes.

Given the breadth of her overview of the sources of Dante's erotic metaphors, which range from Boethius and the myth of Hercules at the crossroads to the Book of Proverbs and the troubadours, lack of depth is perhaps the necessary price to pay for comprehensiveness, although there are significant gaps in the secondary literature that underpins the book.

But in spite of its imperfections, this work has its merits, illuminating fundamental aspects of Dante's religious and literary culture. It is especially valuable for the general reader, since it is full of useful, interesting and stimulating information.

In this respect, the chapter on Dante's Ulysses is exemplary, as it brings together old and new threads of scholarly research on the topic in such a clear, comprehensive and engaging fashion that it would be difficult not to recommend this chapter as a valuable introduction to Inferno XXVI.

Equally worthwhile are the chapters on Purgatorio XXIX-XXXIII, which offer a wealth of valuable observations on medieval representations of love as carnal and divine desire.

This book has a rare quality for a Dante publication: it is a good, interesting, scholarly account that is also comprehensible to the general public.

Dante's Two Beloveds: Ethics and Erotics in the Divine Comedy

By Olivia Holmes
Yale University Press
ISBN 9780300125429
Published 30 November 2008

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