SYNAESTHESIA AND DANTE ——— A Synaesthetic Approach to Purgatorio X 55-63 *

Dante medallion by
Medallion by L. Andreotti (1875-1933) - Copenhagen
L. Andreotti - Copenhagen

Nam et innuere quid est,
nisi quodam modo visibiliter

Augustine, De Trinitate, 15.10.18

Et sunt haec omnia quasi
quaedam verba visibilia.

Augustine, De doctrina christiana,
2.3, 4

Cunctus autem populus
videbat voces et lampadas
et sonitum bucinae
Exodus 20.18






Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perché qui non si trova.
Purgatorio x, 94-96.

* * *


Linguists have been aware for some time that the expressive plane of a language is made up not only of units that can be divided, analyzed, and properly studied in distinctive segmental features, but also that certain phenomena are connected with these features which have been only partially classified and which go under the broad category of paralinguistic. These phenomena are superimposed upon what is strictly called linguistics, and at times they have been found to be characterized by such a strong pertinence over and above the linguistic level that they themselves become the primary channel of communication. Linguists can tell us practically everything about a given word (its origin, formation, history, influences upon other words, and so on), but until recently they could not explain how and why that given word could be pronounced in different ways, with different intonation, pauses, rhythms, and various inflections that modify to a certain degree its 'normal' meaning. Of course, this aspect becomes much more complex and complicated when we analyze a full sentence, that is, when we consider the word in its syntagmatic role in a given act of communication. In fact, the matter of intonation and modulation has been a concern from the first writers on rhetoric down to our times.
Alongside paralinguistic a whole new branch of investigation into the process of communication has developed in recent years. It goes under the name of kinesics. Kinesics, as a science, is the study of all nonlinguistic and non vocal forms of human behavior such as gesture, bodily motion, facial and visual expression, and so on, which are intended to designate semantic units. Recent investigations have already provided us with the basic and perhaps preliminary semiotic classification of various gestural expressions1. Linguists, educators, anthropologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have begun to study the laws which regulate this type of communication2. These studies, in general, emphasize that the linguistic message is qualitatively modified or changed, strengthen or weakened, by auditory or vocal expressions that are codified linguistically, as well as by various somatic expressions or bodily gestures. In other words, studies show that such phenomena transmit information either singly or in conjunction with the spoken language; and, from this point of view, they must indeed be considered as a kind of "language". The efforts of these scholars and the abundant contributions of their studies lie beyond the scope of this article. From the scientific point of view, the problem of kinesics is that of systematizing the substance of such human expression and constructing a repertoire structurally determined by the complex units of a given culture.

Scope of the article

In the following pages I shall consider this kind of communication mainly from the point of view of intersensorial perception and as a tool used by one poet to express and to manifest a certain content at the expressive level. I have chosen Dante as an exemplary figure since we find in him - more that in other poets of his times - a high incidence of some recurring tendencies regarding the metaphoric-metonimic relationship that result from pluridimensional channels of perception. Dante's language has received and continues to receive attention from scholars throughout the world. In the field of paralinguistic, some recent investigations have proven to be a good beginning to what could be an important contribution to Dante criticism3.
Here I shall attempt: (a) to shed some light on Dante's precise intention to avail himself of various channels of communication, including the kinesic communication in its largest sense; (b) to consider the communication conveyed by the various channels as a synaesthetic phenomenon and to construct a framework for synaesthesia in Dante on the basis of some observations provided by the Schoolmen, in particular Thomas Aquinas; (c) to analyze a synaesthetic "episode" from Purgatorio (specifically, the «visible speech» of the three sets of sculptures in Canto 10, with particular emphasis on the central panel), according to some elementary tenets of structural semantics; and (d) to substantiate the finding through a brief inquiry into the exegetical tradition of some biblical passages related to the point in question.

The Poet's Intention

Let's us consider briefly Canto 21 of Purgatory, where an unusual phenomenon occurs. The mountain of Purgatory trembles, and all the souls up and down the slope cry out together. In this Canto we learn the reason. It is a rejoicing that occurs whenever a spirit has completed its repentance and is ready to rise to Heaven. In this particular case, the spirit whose liberation has produced such a commotion is Statius'. Of course, Dante knows the works of Statius, and Statius himself has a profound admiration for Virgil. Statius, then, not knowing that the addressee of his explanation for the trembling of the purgatorial mountain is Virgil, tell him that on earth he was a poet and that the Aeneid was to him "mother and nurse". He confesses to his unknown interlocutor that in fact he would have consented to stay in Purgatory even longer had he been fortunate enough to live during Virgil's time. It is at this point that a dialog of mimetic gestures takes place between Dante and Virgil. Here the kinesic element, and particularly the facial expressions, are so detailed and mimetically so well studied and described by the text as to deserve our close attention:

Volser Virgilio a me queste parole
con viso che, tacendo, disse 'Taci';
ma non può tutto la virtù che vuole;

ché riso e pianto son tanto seguaci
alla passion di che ciascun si spicca,
che men seguon voler ne' più veraci.

Io pur sorrisi come l'uom ch'ammicca;
per che l'ombra si tacque e riguardommi
nelli occhi ove 'l sembiante più si ficca;

e "Se tanto labore in bene assommi"
disse, "perché la tua faccia testeso
un lampeggiar di riso dimostrommi?"

(Purg. 21. 103-114)

These words turned Virgil to me with a look that said in silence: "Be silent". But the power of the will cannot do all, for smiles and tears follow so close the feelings from which they spring that they least follow the will in the most truthful. I only smiled, like one who gives a hint; at which the shade was silent and looked into my eyes, where the expression is clearest, and said: "So may your great labor end in good, do tell me why did your face just now showed me a flashing of smile?"

Some commentators have correctly defined this episode as a "luminous study in physiognomy"4, but they are inclined to believe that this so-called psychological parenthesis concerning smile and tears, as expressed by lines 105-8, is not justified poetically. And it may be so. However, this "parenthesis" must be considered as Dante's quasi definition of a type of nonverbal communication—namely, that belonging to facial expressions, and more precisely to tears and laughter. This type of communication, Dante tells us, is so natural and occurs so suddenly in us that one could say it is directly proportional to the sincerity and veracity of the emotion which generates it. In addition, our willpower, which is perfectly capable of restraining the words within us, is not able to suppress such a form of communication. Elsewhere in the Divine Comedy, Dante speaks of the face and the eyes as being «i sembianti / che soglion esser testimon del core» ("The looks which are wont to be testimony of the heart" - Purg. 28.43-44). Moreover the face, and in particular the eyes and the mouth, are also the object of Dante's consideration in the prose that serves as commentary to the second canzone of his Convivio:

E però che ne la faccia massimamente in due luoghi opera l'anima—però che in quelli due luoghi quasi tutte e tre le nature de l'anima hanno giurisdizione—cioè ne li occhi e ne la bocca. ... Ahi mirabile riso de la mia donna, di cui io parlo, che non si sentia se non de l'occhio. (Convivio 3.8.8, 12)

And in fact inner feelings show up on the face, and especially in two places: in the eyes and in the mouth, because in thse two places almost all three powers of the soul have jurisdiction ... O marvelous smile of my lady which could only be heard by the eyes!

Here Dante considers the eyes and the mouth as the most direct channels of communication because through them we can readily understand the internal "passions" of the soul. By means of an elegant comparison, Dante imagines the eyes and the mouth as the windows and balconies of the edifice of the body. Throught them its lady dweller, the soul, albeit to a degree veiled, often reveals herself. This passage will help us to comprehend more fully a line in the Paradiso where the poet affirms that he is overcome by the "light of a smile" («vincendo me col lume d'un sorriso» - Par. 18, 19). Moreover, serious consideration of the passage from the Convivio will prevent us from accepting the opinion which considers the encounter between Statius and Dante, quoted above, as a comic episode. Indeed, more recent Dante critics have refuted and rejected such a view5. Further, in the prose from the Convivio just cited occurs an extraordinary concept that should be underscored—namely, that the smile of his lady is "heard with the eyes'6. I will return to this point later.
Virgil and Beatrice both transmit their intentions to Dante either by words or by means of non verbal signs. Having completed his mission as a guide, Virgil fixes his eyes on Dante and tells him, «Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno» ("Await no further my word or my sign" - Purg. 27, 139). 'My word' and 'my sign' are expressions that synthesize verbal and non verbal aspects of communication. They racall other similar expressios. Thus, in Canto 18 of Paradiso7 we find that Dante, in his profound desire to be fully instructed by his guide, turns to Beatrice 'to see' and 'to hear' from her what he must do:

Io mi rivolsi dal mio destro lato
per vedere in Beatrice il mio dovere
o per parlare o per atto segnato;

I turned to my right to see in Beatrice my duty shown by language or by gesture.

The commands of Beatrice are "by language or by gesture shown". Her gestural signs are most often made through her eyes and smile, which are, of course, the chief characteristics of her beauty. Beatrice's eyes sparkle as she smiles and her smile, as we have seen, is a light that overcomes the wayfarer Dante (see Paradiso 3. 24, 42; 5. 125-126; 21. 4-12; 28. 11; 30. 14-17). In the Heaven of the fixed stars, Dante, witnessing the hymn sung to God by the blessed, will again use the word smile, but this time it is the smile of the whole universe:

Ciò ch'io vedeva mi sembiava un riso
de l'universo; perché mia ebrezza
intrava per l'udire e per lo viso.
(Par. 27. 4-6)

What I saw seemed to me a smile of the universe, because my rapture entered by both hearing and sight.

In this tercet we have what seems an extraordinary statement that once again revals Dante's intention to combine various channels of sensorial experience. "Extra-ordinary" because here he considers the assimilation of different sense perceptions as a normal semantic process. In this particular example we are confronted with the convergence of the auditory and the visual perceptions at the level of assiciation. In the prose of the Convivio that I have quoted above, we have seen that the admirable smile of the lady could only be heard by the eyes. Here, again, a particular sensation is perceived by two senses, the auditory (verbal) and the visual (kinesic) and is integrated and associated at the semantic level.

The Synaesthetic Phenomenon

When we speak of various types of communication that are perceived through the combination of two or more senses and are integrated and focused at the level of meaning, we are, of course, speaking about the phenomenon that goes under the name of synaeshesia. Grosso modo, synaesthesia is a kind of intertransposition based on the interaction of the sensory experience during the act of perception. As such, it belongs to the realm of metaphor. Yet it can be considered more than a simple metaphor. Linguistically, in synaesthesia there is no actual displacement of the "real" sign as in metaphor. Here neither of the two real signs displaces the other. However, the signs do enter into a form of similtaneous and synergetic association, and by so doing create a virtual image that constitutes a global semantic transposition of each and all "real" signs involved. A synaesthetic perception is one derived from the specific semantic area designed by the lexicon pertaining to sensory images. As such, synaesthesia is a kink of semantic metaphoric fusion of two or more sensory perceptions.
It is a commonplace that literary synaesthesia8 is one of the canonic forms of expression in modern poetry. However, the concept of synaesthetic perception is a very ancient one. In the Western world the idea can be attributed to Aristotle. In fact, it was one of the underlying assumptions that prompted him to develop a theory of the "common" or central sense as a comprehensive perception and thus constituting one of the basic structures in Aristotle's conception of man's cognitive powers. The idea was discussed and elaborated first by the Hellenist and Byzantine commentators on Aristotle, who also used the term συναίσθησις
("synaísthesis") for the first time9. It was then revived by the philosophical and psychological analyses of the Schoolmen—both in Paris and Bologna as well as at Oxford. Later it captured the attention of poets and writers on poetics in post-Italian Renaissance. And finally it developed as one of the basic ingredients in Symbolist and post-Symbolist poetics down to our day.
In the theoretical writings of Dante there is no overt evidence for synaesthesia10. However, references implying that he was well and directly aware of the concept can be found, at least, in a couple of related passages from the Convivio (3.9.6). Making precise references to the two works of Aristotle in which the doctrine of "common sense" is developed, Dante affirms that only color and light can properly be said to pertain to the visual sense: «Dove è da sapere che, propriamente, è visibile lo colore e la luce, sì come Aristotile vuole nel secondo de l'Anima, e nel libro del Senso e Sensato»

("One must know that, properly, only color and light are visible, as Aristotle states in the second book of De anima, and in the treatise De sensu et sensato").
Dante adds that, to be sure, other things come into the field of sight and therefore are visible, but not properly visible as in the case of color and light: «Ben alra cosa è visibile, ma non propriamente, però che11 altro senso sente quello, sì che non si può dire che sia propriamente visibile, né propriamente tangibile; sì come è la figura, la grandezza, lo numero, lo movimento e lo star fermo, che sensibili ‹comuni› si chiamano: le quali cose con più sensi comprendiamo» ("Other things are also visible, but not properly since another sense perceives them. Therefore we cannot say that they are properly visible or properly tangible. These are figure, size, number, movement, and stasis. These are called ‹common› sensible objects as we perceive them with more than one sense").
Here Dante applies the Aristotelian doctrine pertaining to the distinction between the so called sensibilia propria

(Dico autem [sensibile] proprium quidem, quod non contigit altero senso sentiri ... ut visus coloris, et auditus soni, et gustus saporis.

I am saying that proper sensible objects are those which are not perceived by other sense ... sight perceives only color, hearing only sound, and taste only flavor.)

and sensibilia communia

(Communia autem sunt motus, quies, numerus, figura, magnitudo: huiusmodi enim nullius sensus sunt propria, sed communia omnibus.

Common sensible objects on the other hand are movement, stasis, number, figure, size: they are not proper to any indivudual sense, but common to all)12.

This doctrine became one of the basic point for all the thirteenth century commentators of the two works of Aristotle mentioned by Dante, from Alexander of Hales and earlier to Thomas Aquinas and later. The discussion centers on the common sense.
According to Aristotle, common sense is the one function of the ψυχή that gains perceptions of all objects, a common central organ of perception in which the separate communications received by the proper senses are combined into a unity. Common sense can also display synthetic power by grasping the common properties in the qualities of the common sensibles. In fact, the common sensibles (movement, figure, etc.) are the proper objects of the common sense. In addition, common sense has the power to separate and distinguish among the various sensations, and yet it must preserve the unity of sense perception. In short, it is the common ground, "the fontal principle of all external senses", as Thomas Aquinas puts it in his commentary on Aristotle's De anima, and as Dante himself calls it in the same chapter of Convivio (3.9.9) quoted above:

Di questa pupilla lo spirito visivo, che si continua da essa, a la parte del cerebro dinanzi, dov'è la sensibile virtute sì come in principio fontale, subitamente senza tempo la ripresenta, e così vedemo.

The spirit of vision from the pupil is transmitted to the frontal lobe of the brain, where the sensitive power is located, as in a fontal principle. Thus the image is represented immediately, without lapse of time, and we see.

In accordance with the medical tradition of his time, Dante assigns the seat of the common sense «a la parte del cerebro dinanzi», namely to the first of the three ventricles in which, besides common sense, also fantasy, or imagination, is located. This placement is reiterated by Dante in a passage from the Vita Nuova, which reads, «lo spirito animale dimora ne l'alta camera ne la quale tutti li spiriti sensitivi portano le loro percezioni» (2.5) (The sensitive spirit dwells in the high chamber [i.e. the brain] to which all other sensitive spirits bring their perceptions). While not all Aristotle's commentators were in agreement as to the location of the sensus communis13, they all agree that it had the power, through the medium of the proper senses, to bring together and unite two or more sensations. Thus for Alexander of Hales,

Sensus communis habet primum actum et singularem, scilicet discernere album a dulci vel conferre ... Si enim discernit album a dulci et confert, necesse est recipi formam utriusque in uno organo: illud non erit organum gustus nec organum visus ... [sed] sensus communis. Non differt sensus communis sensibilis in suo sensibili a particularibus: quinque enim sensibilia, quae sunt magnitudo, motus, numerus, figura, quies, quae sunt communia sensuum particularium, etiam sunt propria sensus communis. Apprehendatur etiam sensibilia sensum particularium a sensu communi: nam aliter non posset inter illa distinguere; ergo necesse est differre sensum communem in obiecto a sensibus particularibus.

Common sense is responsible for a fundamental and specific activity: namely, that of discerning white from sweet and that of conflating them ... In fact, if white and sweet are perceived separately and combined together, it is necessary that the forms of each be perceived by a single organ. This cannot be the sense of taste or the sense of sight, but a common sense. Insofar its own and proper field, the perseption by common sense does not differ from that of the particular senses. In fact, the five common sensibles—size, movement, number, figure, and stasis—are common to the particular senses, and proper to the common sense. Particular objects perceived individually by the particular senses are also perceived by the common sense. Otherwise it could not distinguish among them. It is necessary thereore to make a distintion between common sense and particular senses14.

Alexander of Hale's point of view was followed closely by other major Schoolmen. Thus, for Thomas common sense—which, again, is the "fontal root of all senses"—could be considered in two ways. First, it could be taken as the terminus of a sensation perceived by an external sense: for instance, the perception of white by the organ of sight. Second, it could be take as the principium and terminus of a sensation perceived by any and all external senses: for instance, the perception of sweet by the organ of taste in relation to the perception of white. In this manner, common sense is able not only to perceive the difference between white and sweet, but also to conceive and realize that in certain cases white is indeed joined with sweet, as in the case of sugar.

Vis sentiendi diffunditur in organa quinque sensum ab alia una radice communi, a quo procedit vis sentiendi in omnia organa, ad quam etiam terminatur omnes immutationes singulorum organorum: quae potest considerari dupliciter. Uno modo, prout est principium unum et terminus omnium sensibilium immutationum. Alio modo, prout est principium et terminus huius et illius sensus ... Habet igitur hoc principium sensitivum commune, quod simul cognosca plura, inquantum accipitur bis ut terminus duarum immutationum sensibilium; inquantum vero est unum, iudicare potest differentiam unius et alterum. ... Ultimo iudicium et ultima discretio pertinet ad sensum communem.

The power of perception comes to the organ of the five senses from one common root. The power of perception derives from it, and all perceptions gathered by the individual senses terminate in it. This can be considered from two points of view. One, as beginning and end of all sense perceptions. Two, as beginning and end of of this or that individual sense. ... This common sensitive foundation, which knows many things at once, holds power in two ways: first, insofar as it is taken twice as end of two sensitive perceptions; second, insofar as it is taken as one, it can judge the difference of one and the other perception. The final judgment rests with the common sense15.

The same concepts are reiterated by Thomas in several passages of his Summa. For instance, in the question on the "powers of the soul taken specifically", Aquinas dedicates two full articles to the matter we have been considering. He describes what we now call synaesthesia not as the result of a psychic disorder16 but as the normal process of decodification and integration of various sensory perceptions. Nor does he consider it as a simple perception of one sense modality in terms of another, but sees it as a totality that envelops the whole field of perception itself in relation to knowledge, in which fantasy-imagination (phantasia sive imagination) and memory—considered respetively as the treasure-stores (thesaurus) of sense-forms and of intentions—play a fundamental and indisputable role. A basic schematic diagram illustrating the direction of this totality of perception, as expressed by Thomas in Summa theologiae 1a, q.78, a.4, might look something like the following diagram

Click to enlarge
Totality of perception according to Thomas Aquinas
Diagram 1

While memory, in a way, can be considered to contain the total gestalt, in the reflection of Thomas the basic working mechanism to which synaesthesia could be ascribed would be under the control of common sense and imagination. These two powers, however, work in strict correlation with the phantasms. Phantasmata, in fact, are not only the images presented to the imagination by the activity of the exterior things affecting the the different and individual sensory powers (i. e., visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, and gustatory images), but they also present a "certain natural order linking different images to each other, that is, a unity accruing to them from a definite area and time that serve as focal points for different sensations"17. Hence, a synaesthetic operation would topographically occupy the entire lower half of the diagram. When memory seems to have lost the context of an image, what has really happened is that fantasy has taken over. The function of the common sense is to perform a kind of synapse of the sense forms apprehended by the individual senses. So that while sight, for instance, can descern white from black or green, and taste can understand sweet, "neither sight nor taste can discern the difference between white and sweet; because in order to discern the difference between two things it is necessary to know them both. Therefore it is necessary that such a judgement belong to a common sense to which all sense perceptions are referred, as to a common terminus" (Summa theol., 1a. 78. 4. 2). In fact, "sometimes we know separately things that are con-joined in reality; for instance, something is white and sweet, and yet sight knows only the whiteness and taste only the sweetness"18. Leaving aside momentarily the treasure-store of fantasy, it seems clear that common sense is responsible for the process of decodification and integration of diverse and divergent sensations in order to move toward the level of association.
The idea of common sense as a common terminus is predicated on the analogy Aristotle drew between it and the mathematical point. Thomas Aquinas says that any point between the two ends of a line can be considered as either one or as two. He underscores this analogy in a comment to De senso et sensato where the underlying concept of synaesthesia once again becomes apparent:

Punctum autem, quod est terminus diversarum linearum, secundum quod in se consideratur, est unum et indivisibile. Et isto modo sensus communis secundum quod in se est unum, est indivisibilis et est unum sensitivum actu dulcis et albi: dulcis per gustum et albi per visum. Si vero consideratur puntum seorsum ut est terminus huius lineae, sic est quodammodo divisibile, quia utimur uno puncto ut duabus. Et similiter sensus communis, quando accipitur ut divisibile quoddam, puta cum seorsum iudicat de albo et iudicat de dulci est alterum secundum actum: secundum vero quod est unum, iudicat differentias sensibilium.

The point, as the end of various lines, when considered itself is one and indivisible. In the same manner, common sense, considered in itself, is also one and indivisible, because it has the power to combine in a single sensitive activity sweet and white: sweet as perceived by taste, and white as perceived by sight. If, on the other hand, we consider the point as the end of a line, the point is divisible because we use one point as the end of two lines. In the same manner common sense, when taken as divisible (as when it gives judgment on white and sweet) is one or the other according to the activity performed19.

It must be noted that the early commentators on Aristotle, such as Alexander of Aphrodisias and Themistius, came to regard the Aristotelian point as a center of a circle from which, as many, a number of radii start and in which, as one, the all unite. This observation is common to almost all medieval commentators as well, so that by the second half of the thirteenth century the common sense had become firmly and widely established as analogical to the center point of the circle and the relation which the center has with its radii procedeeng from the circonference and terminating on it, and vice versa.
The doctrine of the common sense and the underlying concept of synaesthesia—infact, the concept itself of its tradition, namely the analogy of the point and its development into the center of the circle—can be well illustrated by the so-called Wheel of the Five Senses, a medieval wall painting in Longthorpe Tower (near Peterborough, England) discovered some thirty years ago and said to have been made before 1340.

Click to enlarge

The Synaesthetic Wheel

The painting20 portrays the figure of a king standing behing a five-spoked wheel which he apparently holds in place with his left hand. The king's head is turned toward his right as he seems to look over a spider web outside the wheel. Surrounding the wheel, from the king's right to his left, at the points where the spokes connect to the rim, are five animals: a spider in its web, a eagle or volture, a monkey, a cock, and a boar. According to a passage from De rerum natura by Thomas of Cantimpré, each of the five animals represents a sense21. Now for our purpose, this painting may be considered as the first known visual representation22 of the connections among the five senses, both in relation to the sense of touch (scholastically understood as the most importance, in that it is the foundation of all senses and the closest "to the fontal root", that is common sense)23 and in relation to the king, who may be considered to represent man's ratio. Insofar as the process of perception is concerned, we may therefore say that each animal, taken by itself, represents the "aesthetic" or sense level. The fact that in the painting the senses are correlated to the rim of the wheel is quite significant. The spokes may represent the sensorial channels of perceptions leading to a center, the hub of the wheel—an interaesthetic point where decodification and integration of various sensory perceptions take place. This area is under the control of the common sense, which sets up for the ratio, and hence for the intellect, the associational meaning of two or more sensory perceptions. For our discussion, then, we may call this painting in Longthorpe Tower not simply The Wheel of the Five Senses, but The Synaesthetic Wheel24.

According to Thomas, two activities take place at the sensory level (in parte sensitiva). The first, just described and illustrated by the the Synaesthetic Wheel, is of course effected from the outside by sensible objects. So, at the "aesthetic" level for instance, the sense of sight will be able to see only the color of an apple and not perceive its characteristic fragrance. But the fact that the apple is perceived without its scent can only be attributed to sight, because in the sense of sight there is only the image of color and not that of fragrance (Sunna theol.1a. q. 85, a. 2 ad 2). It is, as we have seen, the function of he common sense to integrate the two perceptions.The other activity at the sensory level is a kind of pro-duction on the part of the imagination, in that it forms for itself the image of an absent object, or even an object never seen before.

Both of these activities are controlled by the intellect. However, it is by virtue of the second operation that definitions and acts of meaning are formed by the combination and separation of ideas. These, in turn, are expressed through words. Single words express the definition, while words in the syntagmatic union of the enunciation express the intellectual process of composition and separation—that is to say, meaning25. The operation of the intellect, as an operation, is closely related to that of the common sense. In fact, the intellect is to imagination as common sense is to common sensation. This is an analogy in the strictest sense and holds true in relation to non homogeneous sensations such as white and sweet, as well as opposite sensations such as white and black. A common sense "judges" the sensations of white and black or of white and sweet, so intellect "judges" the phantasms of white and black or of white and sweet (cf. In de anima 3, lect. 12, 770). The intellectual process of conjunction is, of course, purely synthetic. The intellect has the power to abstract and synthesize two or more distinct concepts and merge them into one26. It seems obvious, then, that between sensation and imagination (and, indeed, also memory, which when it loses the context of an image is in fact relinquishing it to fantasy) there is a normal condition of anastomosis. It may be said that we have reached the fontal principle from which fine art springs. But with this we are far beyond the concept of synaesthesia, and thus the limited scope of this investigation.

Suffice it to say that while these ideas comprise quite an important stage in the considerations and reflection of Thomas Aquinas, they were also the object of an intensive and in-depth analysis by other Schoolmen. Naturally they also formed part of the inheritance of other thinkers and philosophers of the late Middle Ages, including, of course, Dante. What is astonishing is Dante's unique feat of turning these theoretical principles into a vast poetic enterprise. It has benn said that the poetic message, in all of its manifestations up to the fifteenth century, is strongly characterized by an almost total absence of sensory notations27. From this perspective, the importance of synaethesia used as a poetic tool by Dante acquires even greater significance. In fact, his use of various sense modalities in the poetic message of the Divine Comedy should be considered one of the major elements of the work. These modalities still await a full semiotic analysis.

A Synaesthetic Modality

Dante makes clear the synaethetic modality of sensory perception at the very beginning of the Divine Comedy when he describes the atmosphere of Inferno. He characterizes the "selva oscura" as the realm where "il sol tace" ("the sun is silent" - Inferno 1.60). As we know the Commedia is literally filled with synaesthesias of various complexity. To my knowledge, a thorough and comprehensive study of them has yet to be undertaken 28. It is not the purpose of this article to provide an inventory and a proper classification of the many synaesthesias and synaesthetic concepts found in Dante's masterpiece, much less to suggest a possible semiotic approach to this very complex problem. Instead, I shall try to consider—in a single example of synaesthesia—the interplay between the level of sensation (the aesthetic level) and the level of association (the synaesthetic level), in order to arrive at the axis of the elementary semantic structure that unites two or more heterogeneous sensory perceptions.

Before we proceed it may be useful to clarify briefly my terminology, which is essentially drawn from A. J. Greimas. In his terms, an elementary semantic structure is defined by the formula A / r (S) / B, in which the relation (r) of the two terms A / B is given by the semantic axis (S) which unites the similarities and the differences of the two terms29. As an example the formula can be elucidated by the old maxim "homo lupus", in which A (homo) and B (lupus) are related (r) through the semantic axis (S) understood in terms of "rapacity", which as an element connected with the idea of lupus thereby becomes also a connotation of homo30.

Let us now direct our attention to those sculpted figures of white marble on the cliff in the first terrace of Purgatory

.. io conobbi quella ripa intorno ..
esser di marmo candido e adorno
d'intagli sì, che non pur Policleto,
ma la natura lì avrebbe scorno.
(10. 29-33)

... I perceived that the encircling bank ... was of white marble amd adorned with carvings such as not only Polycletus but Nature would there be put to shame.

We are confronting a "sculpured dialogue", the function of which is to communicate31 to the proud souls doing penance there exemplars of the virtue of humility. Dante describes these and hastens to tell us that he is in fact admiring a "visible speech" (visibile parlare) wrought by God himself and new to humankind because it is not found on earth:

Colui che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perché qui non si trova
(10. 94-96)

He for Whose sight noting was ever new, wrought this visible speech, new to us because it is not found here.

The expression "visible speech" can be considered as a semic nucleus, meaning that these two words (visible speech) can be taken as the minimal terms of a denomination of which "logos" in its two most obvious aspects—that of sound-speech or verbal communication, and that of sight-speech or kinesic communication—is the semantic condensation or the semantic axis of an elementary semantic structure. [Incidentally, it may be interesting to note here that John Chrysostom in one of his homilies uses the verb κινέω (to move) in syntagmatic union with the word λόγος (word)]32.

We couuld also consider the two words "visible speech" as a single member of a binary system, the first term of which corresponds precisely to the Dantean visible speech of Purgatory, and the second term to be defined as "audible speech", so that we could formulate an elementary semantic structure as follows: "visible speech | audible speech".

For the sake of clarity, and at the same time for the purpose of suggesting a certain analogical relationship between the divine sign (the sculptures) and the sign of that sign (Dante's text), we may combine the two possibilities mentioned above into a unified pattern as ahown by the following diagram:

Click to see a larger view

Diagram 2

From the lower part of the diagram portraying the "Operational Model", the two syntagmatic expressions "visible speech" and "visible speech/audible speech" are for our purpose one and the same, although for the sake of analysis it may be more convenient to adopt the longer form. As a binary opposition, it can best be analyzed in the form of a semic articulation—that is to say, by establishing the relation among the elements of meaning in each opposite term. In our specific case, , we would have to describe each opposite syntagm through the sensory order upon which it depends: in the first expression (visible speech), a a visual order (mime, gesture); in the second (audible speech), an auditory order (word-sound). In Dante's lines it seem apparent that the "visible speech" stands out as an ars nova33, a pure category that has in its reality the value of a divine kinesis. The new visible speech we are concerned with here, of course, is a form of total art that can only belong to God as Maker, the divine "fabbro" (Purg. 10. 99). In its perfection the model is inaccessible non only for any human artist but even for Nature herself, "... not only Polycletus, but Nature herself wold there be put to shame" (10. 32-33). Here is not simply a creation out of chaos—as was the primal creation—but a special act of love, a pro-duction ("produsse), a leading forth by the divine intellect, an act of caritas. The marble itself has become perfectly ductile under the inefflable spirit of the Maker, who is Logos and motus anterior to any articulated word34.

The model of the supreme making, His creation, (~ ποιέω) is a "language for the eyes and for the soul. Sculpture is a visible art. It is seen, not heard. But Dante, having reached a full understanding of the word as well as of the living dialogue of the high reliefs, associates vision and word, sculpture and poetry, art and life"35. The model, although inaccesible to man because of its perfection, must nonetheless be described by a second making—that of the poetical operation that makes the first one accessible to us through the synaesthetic word-image of Dante's text. In this text, here and elsewhere, Dante's poetic word—heavy with patristic and Scholastic tradition—becomes ductile as never before under the skillful pen of its master. The assertion of Oderisi da Gubbio that Dante "will hold the glory of the language" by surpassing the most famous poets of his times (Purg. 11. 97-99) has already become a reality. From now on, Dante's tremendous task will be an ever-increasing poetic responsibility, to bend his fantasy toward creating similitude of the word and the Logos insofar as it is possible36; in other words, up to the point of the complete and irreversible aphasia at the end of Paradiso: "All'alta fantasia qui mancò possa" ("To the high fantasy here power failed" - 33. 142). But this, interesting though it may be, lies outside our immediate concern, and I shall pursue it no longer. The important point here is the the above suggestion may be taken as an indication of the infrastructure upon which Dante's poetical expression rests and works.

The sculptures of Purgatory 10

The tenth canto of Purgatorio is a veritable gallery of divine sculptures. It is composed of three blocks of high reliefs. In the first we find the Annunciation. The Archangel Gabriel is portrayed by Dante as an image that "one would swear it was saying Ave" (10. 40). Mary herself is described in such a way tha the words "Ecce ancilla Dei" (10. 44) are as if imprinted in her attitude. The second high relief portrays another fundamental biblical episode (Sam. 6: 12-16). Here we find king David dancing "with all his might" (10. 65) before the Ark of the Covenant as it is drawn into the city. In the third panel we have, as an example of humility, Trajan portrayed by Dante in his imperial majesty and yet in the act of acknowledging the justice of a poor widow's claim. The last high relief is an excellent example of movement and of the "living dialogue" mentioned above. I may add that here Dante translates for us the kinetic dialogue between the emperor and the widow into an extremely expressive verbal dialogue.

I shall leave aside the long series of gestural signs on wich Dante's "visible speech" is based. However, I would like to devote particular attention to an important detail around which the second sculpture seems to revolve. It also can be taken as an example to support the idea of Dante's intention of expressing himself through various means—in this particular case, a tridimensional order of communication based on the visual,auditory, and olfactory perceptions. Following basically the operational model sketched above, our analysis will also clarify the concept of the elementary semantic structure proposed at the beginning of the previous senction.

In the second set of high reliefs on humility, the Ark of the Covenant, which is being escorted by David into the city of Jerusalem, is preceded by a group of seven choirs. On the marble wall are also sculpted censers. Now, the smoke that rises from the censers is so perfect, Dante tells us, that his "eyes and nose bore discordant witness both of yes and no" (10. 62-63). Dante's observation here is based on an olfactory-visual order. This, in turn, is preceded by another observation based on an audio-visual order: it refers to the hymn of praise chanted by the seven choirs before the Ark of the Covenant. Again, these choirs are so perfectly sculpted, Dante says, that they "made two of my senses say, the one 'No', the other 'Yes', they are singing" (10. 59-60).

Era intagliato lì nel marmo stesso
lo carro e i buoi, traendo l'arca santa,
per che si teme officio non commesso.

Dinanzi parea gente; e tutta quanta,
partita in sette cori, a' due miei sensi
faceva dir l'un "No", l'altro "Sì, canta".

Similemente, al fummo de li 'ncensi
che v'era imaginato, li occhi e 'l naso
e al sì e al no discordi fensi.
(10. 55-63)

There carved in the same marble were the cart and the oxen drawing the sacred ark which makes men fear tasks non committed to them. In front peole appeared, and the whole group, divided into seven choirs, made two of my senses say, the one "No", the other, "Yes, they are singing". In the same way, about the smoke of incense which was shown there, my eyes and nose bore disconrdant witness both of yes and no. (10. 55-63)

This particular detail is set by Dante precisely and pertinently at the very center of the divine gallery, both thematically and compositionally. I have already mentioned that the Ark of the Covenant is the central panel of the three sculptures. In terms of compostion, we note that the core of the description of the Ark is preceded by nine tercets (31-57), and followed by nine tercets (67-93). It means, therefore, that, at least as an exemplum, the central sculpture is in a way the carrying structure of the whole cornice and, perhaps, one of the main emblematic elements of the entire cantica.

Within the central panel itself, the smoke of the censers and the song of the choirs come together to form a double synaesthesia that concerns the pairs ears/eyes and eyes/nose. From a literal interpretation of the text, it is obvious that the visual sense is contrasted to the auditory and olfactory senses. Dante does insist in fact on their "discordance". His textual precision and his adherence to the doctrine of the proper sensible objects are unmistakable. The visual faculty can properly see only color. The eyes have no proper jurisdiction over the fragrance from the censers or over the chant from the choirs. In the text, the discordance of the secondary senses is an attempt on their part to "correct" the superior sense of sight. Yet a reading of the two tercets conveys the strong impression that the eyes do indeed perceive the sound of the voices and the fragrance of the smoke. We know that this is the result of the synaesthetic working of the intellect through the common sense and the phantasmata, or sense images. The "correction" performed by the ears and the nose is only a synchronic correction of the sense taken in its proper function. It has nothing to do, of course, with the function of he intellect. We must, then, draw the conclusion that the poetic image we derive from the reading of the text is a correct one—that is, at the syntagmatic union of the enunciation (at the level of its meaning) there is a synaesthetic blending of sight, hearing, and smell. As we have seen above, this is due to the accumulation, reorganization, reshaping, and storing of previous sensations—a diachronic process in which the eyes absorb more than any other external sense. But in the literature we have been considering so far as the basis for synaesthesia, there is even a more cogent passage suited precisely to our purpose, in that it seems to bear directly on our specific case in point. Let us consider it.

In the first chapter of the third book of De anima, Aristotle shows that the continued conjunction of two or more qualities perceived by two different senses eventually enables us to perceive both qualities, properly and incidentally, with a single sense. So that if one were to perceive the color and consistency of honey, one would also perceive its sweetness and, in this case, Aristotle says, the individual would perceive the sweetness with the organ of sight. His argument is as follows: "Incidentally we perceive semething to be sweet through seeing it, because from past experience we have a perception of two qualities united in one object..." so that "... the senses perceive incidentally qualities which are proper to other senses, but not in so far as they are separate, but in so far as they constitute one sense, when a simultaneity of perception takes place in regard to the same object" (425a.20—425b.2).

Perhaos even more important for our specific case is the explanation of this passage given by Thomas Aquinas. More important and more relevant because the example chosen and the expressions used by him are so close to the Dantean text as to make his explanation of Aristotle's passage seem an extremely pertinent commentary on the very lines of Purgatorio we have been considering. In his exposition Thomas asserts that "the senses perceive each other's special objects indirectly, as sight that of hearing, and vice versa. Sight does not perceive the audible as such, nor hearing the visible as such—for he eyes take no impression from the audible, nor the ears from the visible—but both objects are perceived by each sense only in so far as 'one sense', i. e. one actual sensation so to say, bears upon an object which contains both. I mean that both senses in question are exercised at once upon one and the same sensible thing"37.

It must be noted, however, that both Aristotle's argument on the incidentality of perception and Thomas's explanation of it refer only to the level of sense perception, and are predicated on previous knowledge that is furnished by some other cognitive faculty, such as "the cogitative or estimative powers, or intellect". In fact, it is true that "the operation of the intellect originates from the senses; but the intellect knows many things which sense itself cannot perceive"38.

We may then conclude our preliminary observations on Dante's experience when facing this sculpture of Purgatory with the following perceptive assertion by Fallani: "No sound reached the ears. The crowd seemed silent, but the eyes felt the movement of the chant and were fascinated by it as if it were a reality. The eyes were deceived in judging that the smoke was rising. The incense wasn't giving out any fragrant aroma, because the nose wasn't perceiving it. But in this relief the senses are mistaken, they clash against matter, except the sense of sight which is the only one enjoying this real and unreal happening"39.

Semantic analysis

At this point, if we are correct in reading the poetic message, we could begin our semantic analysis of this synaesthesia by sructuring these three sensory orders in such a way as to constitute an opposition at the olfactory level (the fragrance of the incense) and the auditory level (the laud chanted by the choirs) through the visual level that partakes of both:

______________ S e n s a t i o n ______________


A schematic diagram of this specific act of communication could be formulated as follow:

Click to see a larger view

Diagram 3

A few explanatory remarks are in order. (1) The diagram is basically intended as a visual operational model showing schematically the massage in that section of Dante's text. The diagram itself may be considered as a meta-message. This, however, is irrelevant to our analysis. (2) In the "Transmission" and reception" sides, all the elements, down to the level of "Sensation", are given by the text. (3) In the "Reception" part, the primary receiver (the eyes) has the full burden of "receiving" sensations from non proper channels (smoke, chant). (4) There is no reception from the sensory data of smoke and chant by the proper senses of smell and hearing. An analysis conducted along Thomistic lines would certainly classify these media as sense-objects per accidens, as they (the choirs-chants and the censers-fragrance) are apprehended by the intellect as soon as this particular sight experience of Dante occurs40. (5) The secondary senses are "associated" only through a kind of sense reflex. In the diagram this is indicated by dotted lines. (6) In the operational model, the semantic axis is given as such (oratio). It will be the task of the following inquiry to prove it correct.

Substantiation of the Semantic Axis

The above diagram shows a synaesthetic connection between the fragrance of the incense and the laud of the choirs. The semantic axis of these two terms is the result of their aesthetic syncretism. As I have said, the axis goes under the name of oratio, or prayer. It is self-evident that the term prayer, in one of its manifestations—namely, the saints' laud that rises to God in the form of a chant—belongs specifically to only one of the two terms in question, that characterized by auditory sensation. However, this connotation of the chant becomes also a denotation of the opposite term in the semantic structure, that given by the smoke of the incense and characterized by olfactory sensation. The net result is that laud, fragrance and prayer, under these circumstances, become interchangeable elements of an equation in which prayer functions as the central term of correlation. We could say, then, that the fragrance of the incense and the laud of the choirs are in a state of symbiosis. They coexit semantically by virtue of a synergetic exchange that has been taking place between them for a long time. If this is so, the semantic axis (or, if one prefers, its diacronic aspect) will have to be sought in the long biblical and exegetical tradition, the highlights of which I shall briefly outline.

First and foremost we must direct our attention to Psalm 140 (141), because it presents a specific likeness between prayer and incence, in a simile concerned with a sense of direction that was to remain a constant element in the exegetic tradition: "Let my prayer be directed to Thee as incense" (Dirigatur oratio mea sicut incensum in conspectu tuo). Also, in the Apocalypse we find the concept of prayer in syntagmatic union with that of incense. Here, after the opening of the seventh seal, and angel came and stopped in front of the altar, holding a cencer. Incense was given to him so that he might offer it along with the prayers of the saints: "The angel came and stood in front of the altar, having a golden censer. And there was given to him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayer of all saints. ... And the smoke of incense ascended up before God out of the angel's hands with the prayer of the saints (Angelus venit et stetit ante altare habens turibulum aureum, et data sunt illi incensa multa, ut daret orationibus santorum omnium. ... Et ascendit fumus incensorum de orationibus sanctorum de manu angeli coram Deo - Rev. 8. 3-4). Here, as in Psalm 140, the element of the syntagma is evident in the smoke of incense and the prayer of the saints. Smoke becomes almost the viable and visible channel of man's communication with God.

In the fourth century exegetic tradition we find the same concepts in Augustine's commentary on psalm 140 cited above. He compares the heart of the faithful to a sacred altar; from the heart of man prayer rises in the same way as incense rises from the sacred altar. But the commentator goes on to add something extremely important by saying that there is nothing more delectable to God that this fragrance; therefore, continues Augustine, may all believers be sweet-scented for God: Oratio ergo pure directa de corde fideli, tanquam de ara sancta surgit insensum. Nihil est delectabilius Domini: sic oleant omnes qui credunt ("Prayer rises from the faithful's heart in the same way as incense rises from the altar. There is nothing more delectable to God than its fragrance. May all believers be so sweet-scented")41.

The shift from prayer associated with smoke as a visual aspect, as noted above, to the olfactory characteristic expressed bu Augustine—and, in fact, also by Ambrose before him—is a major element that will remain constant in patristic exegesis and poetical conceptions down to Dante.

This very delectable—as Augustine calls it—olfactory aspect of prayer is strongly reiterated about a century later by Cassiodorus in his commentary on Psalm 140. Moreover, his commentary makes reference to the passage of Revelation quoted above. In is extremely terse prose, Cassiodorus sets up a parallel structure between incense burned by the coals and prayer ignited by the fire of love. In such a setting, he reaffirms the concept already expressed by his predecessors—that the fragrance of incense ascends to the Almighty as the prayers of the blessed, and that the prayers of the saints are accepted by God as a sweet fragrance.

Incensum est odiriferi pigmenti suavis adustio, quae carbonibus concremata, gratisimum fumum porrigit ad superna, et odorantes se delectabili jucunditate permulcet. Sic beatorum oratio igne charitatis incensa, divinis conspectibus ingeritur, quae magis humilitatis et compuntionis pondere sublevatur. Nam orationem sanctam velut odorem suavissimum suscipere Dominum et in Apocapypsi legitur, ubi dictum est: "Stetit angelus super aram domini (etc.)".

Incense is the sweet burning of a scented pigment which, fueled by coals, pours forth a very pleasant smoke, filling people with delightful happiness. In the same way the prayer of the blessed, fueled by the fire of love and lifted by humility and contrition, is brought up in front of God. God enjoys our virtues as much as pleasant smell, and He accepts a holy prayer as sweet fragrance. In fact, in Revelation it is written: "The angel came and stood in front of the altar of God (etc.)"42.

In the biblical and patristic quotations so far presented we have been made aware that a somilitude was drawn between prayer and smoke, and between prayer and fragrance—what I have called the visual and the olfactory aspects of prayer. With the passing of time, the simily changed, and by the twelfth century it had become a full-fledged metaphore. It must be pointed out, however, that there is evidence for a trasformation of the simily into a metaphor even six centuries earlier, during the time of Augustine. Thus in a very eloquent and poetic passage from De Isaac et anima, Ambrose describes the soul in the desert of this earth choked with the brambles and thorns of our sins. Through prayer she lifts herself up toward God like the shoot of a vine, and like the smoke produced from fire that seeks the heights. Then Ambrose likens the fragrance of a pious prayer to the odor of incense. Finally, he interweaves the prayer of the soul and the incense offered to God in a closely knit syntactical structure in which the metaphoric import is made apparent. In this connection, incense does become equivalent to the prayer of the saints, which is, as it were, "fragrant with the sweet ointment of pious prayer, because it had been prepared from prayers for things eternal and invisible, and not for things corporeal. And above all the soul is redolent with incense because she is dead to sin and alive in God".

Odor autem ille oorationis piae redolet suavitatem, quae dirigitur sicut incensum in conspectu Dei. Et in Apocalypsi legimus quod, "Ascendit fumus incensorum de orationibus sanctorum" (Apoc. viii, 4), quae incensa deferuntur per angelum, sanctorum orationes scilicet, super altare illud aureum quod est ante sedem Dei, at tanquam piae precationis suave fragrat unguentum; quia de aeternorum et invisibilium, non de corporalium petitione compositum est: praecipue tamen [anima] redolet et thus, eo quod peccatis mortua sit, et Deo vivat.

The fragrance of a pious prayer is scented with sweetness and directed, as incense, to God. And in Revelation we read that "the smoke of incense ascended from the prayer of the saints" (Rev. 8. 4). Incense, that is the saints' prayer, was offered by the angel in front of the golden altar, before God. The fragrance is as sweet-smelling as a pious prayer because it has been prepared from prayers for things eternal and invisible, and not for things corporeal. And above all, the soul is redolent with incense because she is dead to sin and alive in God43.

Throughout the passage, the terms, starting from the physical aspects of their earthly nature, acquire an ever-increasing spirituality. They become, as it were, interiorized and dematerialized to the point that, toward the end of the paragraph, Ambrose feels it necessary to reinforce this process by using an antithetical clause which strongly affirms the spirituality by denying the material ("... a prayer for things eternal and invisible, and not for things corporeal"). It is, so to speak, the very heart of the physical matter that becomes spiritual and eternal. Throughout the passage Ambrose explicitly conveys to us the metaphoric and allegorical meaning by his use of a semantic solution: the terms lose in physical precision, but they are enriched and gain in spiritual truth. The soul's prayer is incense, and therefore she is redolent with its fragrance.

Finally, in one of Alain de Lille's sermons, the full metaphorical meaning is brought out and, in fact, explained in term of the simile. It occurs in a speech prepared for the Day of Epiphany. As it may be expected, the theme centers on the Magi's offerings. Their gifts of myrrh, incense and gold are given a tri-leval interpretation: "historical" (myrrh), "tropological" (incense), and "anagogical" (gold). Incense is offered by the intellect and, significantly, is placed in the middle of the triad, as an intermediate step on the road from earthly and transitory things (symbolized by myrrh) to celestial and divine contemplation (symbolized by gold). Incense works as a kind of sursum ductiva power, a power that lifts up the soul. Through prayer, the door is open to celestial encounters. Now the same three gifts are offered also by men. Here incense signify prayer:

Nos autem, fratres karissimi, offeramus Doe tria munera, aurum, thus et mirram. ... Per thus oratio significatur unde dictum est: "Dirigatur oratio mea sicut incensum in conspectu tuo".

Dearest brothers, let us offer God three gifts: gold, incense and myrrh. ... Incense signifies prayer, as it is written, "Let my prayer be directed to Thee as incense"44.

However, it is in his Distinctiones that Alanus makes clear the metaphoric significance of incense. Here the proper meaning of incense is prayer: Incensum, proprie, oratio; unde in Psalmo: "Dirigatur, Domine, oratio mea sicut incensum". (Incense, properly speaking, is prayer. Thus in in the Psalm is written: "Oh, Lord, be my prayer directed to Thee as incense".
The same definition is given for the word "smoke": Fumus, proprie, oratio vel virtus orationis. (Smoke, properly speaking, is prayer, or the power of prayer). In this entry we are reminded also of the simile that other used before him—as smoke drifts toward the heights, so prayer inflamed by the fire of caritas ascends upward to God.
Finally, one would also expect a similar definition for the entry "odor". In fact, according to Alanus, fragrance does mean prayer: Odor, proprie, dicitur oratio. (Fragrance, properly speaking, means prayer)45.

The visual and olfactory dimensions of prayer are again in evidence. It must be noted that here the metaphorical meaning almost reabsorbs into itself, so to speak, the proper meaning of the words. The semantic process of enrichment, to which I have alluded above, here reaches its maximum point of development and tension. In the definition of Alanus, this uplifting or semantic transfer of the sign (signum) from its earthly (literal) significance to celestial meaning is properly called symbol. According to a curious etymology given by Alanus ("syn" + "olon"), symbol is a "syntotality", in that the sign comprehends a multiple knowledge of reality. On the surface, the sign sounds literally, but in the interior it become understood tropologically and anagogically46. As I believe we have sufficiently seen, incence does become the sign of a hidden reality—prayer.

Alain de Lille's biblical reference ("May my prayer, o Lord, be directed to Thee as incense") brings us back to Psalm 140. We have seen that the concept of prayer (laud) as a fragrance rising to God from those who beleive is deeply embedded in patristic tradition47. And the tradition draws its vital inspiration from the passage of Revelation quoted above as well as from this psalm. It is worth noting that the psalm in question is one of David's, "the humble psalmist", as Dante precisely and pertinently names him in the very episode of Purgatorio under consideration (10.65).

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Dante's tercet on the smoke of Purgatory (10. 61-63) has sometimes been harshly crticized. It has been felt that here Dante insists on details to a degree that his expression seems too logical and cannot be justified poetically. Some critics claim that Dante—because of his downshift from the "noble" senses (eyes and ears) to the "inferior" and material sense of smell (10. 62)—here becomes forced and unnatural, with the result that the three lines (61-63) appear almost pedestrian48. However, our brief foray into patristic literature, and the discovery and substantiation of the semantic axis (prayer) postulated at the beginning of this section, prevent us from agreeing with that point of view. On the contrary, on the basis of the foregoing analysis, we can say that the tercet not only is totally justified but is also poetically inevitable. In other words, prayer is its vital essence because it is the very basis for its inspiration. Incense as prayer is an essential and eloquent necessity in the profound silence that envelops Dante's purgatorial sculptures49. Moreover, the semantic axis justifies, both morally and poetically, the expanded paraphrase of the Lord Prayer which Dante has the penitent spirits recite at the very beginning of the following canto (11. 1-24). As we know, these are the same spirits for whom the sculptures of the "visible speech" were wrought by God as exempla. We may add, then, that the concept of prayer does establish the poetic unity of the first terrace of Purgatory and, in fact, of the whole cantica, which is, as everyone knows, the realm of prayer.

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The discovery of this semantic axis is indeed rewarding in other ways, because it helps us to understand more fully other passages in the Divine Comedy. For instance, when Dante finds himself in front of the superluminous darkness that springs from the river of light—which transform itself first into a round sea of light, and then into a celestial rose made up with the blessed, a rose full of spiritual fragrance of prayer to the eternal God—the poet does not fail to record it with an exquisite synaethetic expression, "The yellow of the unwithering rose ... is redolent with the fragrance of praise to the Sun of eternal spring"

Nel giallo della rosa sempiterna
che ... redole

odor di lode al sol che sempre verna
(Par. 30. 124-126)

Thus, in these lines, if we were to take the verb "redole" out of context (an arbitrary act, prohibited even by the strong enjambment that binds the italicized syntagma) and consider it as "a rare latinism from Virgil"50, we would certainly lose the full impact of Dante's synaesthesia. The fact is that the verb redoleo and its derivatives recur very frequently in patristic writings in connection with the fragrance of incense, and bear the precise meaning I have tried to point out above. From Ambrose and Augustine through Cassiodorus on, all the way up to the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in all corners of Christendom, even in formula of incense benediction51, the image acquire a specifically profound metaphoric meaning. Incensum, fumus, odor, oleo, adoleo, redoleo, suavitas, thus, fragrantia, and so on become isotopes of a tightly woven and compact semantic structure, centered around oratio, prayer. The lines just quoted are the culmination of this long tradition. In this canto of Paradise, so close to the end of his supernatural journey, Dante reaches one of the highest levels of poetic concentration and condensation.

With Dante's progression from Purgatory through Paradise, the motif of laud becomes first nature to the blessed. There is, moreover, an increasing association of it with perfume and light, and the whole is laced around a kinetic element in the form of dance. As O'Malley has correctly shown, Damte "intersense metaphore" is of a philosophocal and spiritual nature. In the Paradiso, where the concept of "singing and shining and odoriferous lights in the various spheres tend to dissolve distinctions among senses", we often observe what O'Malley calls "synaesthetic drift": the synaesthetic images reinforce one another, as in the case of the reflections of songs and the echoing of rainbow splendors at the beginning of canto 12 (1-15). The maximum synaethetic drift will be reached in the final canto of Paradise (33. 82-90), where Dante beholds, "as though in a simple flame of light, the fusion of all phenomena in a divine unity52. Here, of course, we are at the outer limits of sense perception, in a completely spiritual and interiorized sphere. Dante's intense vibrations of panaethetic experiences are here concentrated and condensed into one term—Love. In Love, all sense perceptions are integrated and fused into an all-embracing unity53.


I will conclude by saying that the semantic axis, prayer, has appeared as a synergetic outcome of the two related terms fragrance and laud. These terms, however, are offered to us by Dante's trnslinguistic perception derived from the smoke of the censers and from chant of the choirs sculpted on the wall of the purgatorial terrace, By "translinguistic perception" I simply mean a perception that does not derive from a linguistic form-order, but that may in fact be perfectly equivalent to one and translatable into one54. Dante the Poet is the master who provides us with this perfect translation.

The communicative experience that we have tried to grasp from the nonverbal orders of perception in the Dantean episode is but a glimpse of a totality composed of verbal and nonverbal elements, unfolding and merging into a continuous redolent and musical pan-orama that reaches its ultimate form of poetic expression in the mystical transcendence of the last canto of Paradise. Beyond that lies the superluminous silence of Dante's aphasia: the Poet's ineffable experience—which is, for us, the blank page.

© Gino Casagrande
05 JUL 2004


* The article was first read in 1986 at The Newberry Library in Chicago. It was then revised and published, with a similar title in Lectura Dantis Newberryana, Vol. II, Evanston:Northwestern University Press, 1990, pp. 21-57. It is made available here, with no change, for the benefit of the readers who may have difficulties to access the Lectura Newberryana volume.

1. Cf. Eckman and Friesen, "Repertoire of Nonverbal Behavior", Semiotica 1, no. 1 (1969).

2. See, at least, Approaches to Semiotics, de. T. A. Sebeok, A. S. Hayes, and M. C. Beteson, Paris 1964. See also A. Ponzio, La semiotica in Italia, Bari 1976, esp. 1:2 and 2:2.

3. I have in mind some recent contributions such as the volume by T. Wlassics, Interpretazioni di prosodia dantesca, Roma 1972.

4. See La Divina Commedia, commento di A. Momigliano, Purgatorio 21, nn. 103-20.

5. M. Sansone, "Il canto XXI del Purgatorio", Lectura Dantis Scaligera: Purgatorio, Firenze 1968, pp. 793-826.

6. Busnelli and Vandelli resolve the expression "de l'occhio" with "con l'occhio". They also quote the following note by Barbi: "Il de ha, si sa, nell'antico italiano, e generalmente nelle lingue romanze, un uso assai più vario che oggi, per modo da fare anche una grande concorrenza al cum" (cf. Il Convivio, ed. G. Busnelli and G. Vandelli; 2d ed., a cura di A. E. Quaglio, Firenze 1964, 1: 353, n. 9.

7. Canto 18 could be cited to show how a superb craftsman as Dante can use various types of communication functionally and structurally to set up a pattern of reciprocal and antithetical relations in order to create unrivaled poetic effects. Here we observe, first, the impossibility of any communication through aphasia (ll. 8-12), then communication through nonverbal elements (13-18), then through verbal expressions (20-21), after which follows nonverbal(22-27), and, again, verbal communication (28-36); and so on.

8. Literary synaesthesia also goes under the name of "intersense analogy". Presumably this is in order to distinguish it from clinical synaesthesia, wich is often associated with abnormal experience. For more details, see G. O'Malley, "Literary Synaesthesia", Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism 15(1957): 391-411. However, there may be no need to make such a distinction, since it seems that clinical synaethesia is properly called synaesthesis (see P. Dombi Erzsébet, "Synaesthesia and Poetry", Poetics 11(1974): 23-44.

9. The term was first used by Alexander of Aphrodisias in relation to consciousness of sensation, which accompanies the exercise of man's perceptual powers and is under the control of common sense (see E. Wallace, Aristotle's Psychology, New York 1976, pp. lxxxi-lxxxii and 255; this is a reprint of the 1882 ed., entitled Peri psychês). In the past many scholars have supposed that synaesthesia is a modern phenomenon that began with Romanticism. However, recent investigations have shown that such an assumption is unfounded and incorrect. O'Malley (p. 391) has pointed out that a basic definition of synaesthesia as a "metaphor of the senses" is suggested by a remark of Aristotle in De anima 2.420a-b (but see also 2.9.421a-b). In addition, by Aristotle, see De sensu et sensato 4. 440b.30. Cf. also Themistius, In de anima 104.

10. G. Cambon, "Synaesthesia in the Divine Comedy", Dante Studies 88(1970): 1-16.

11. I am quoting from the Busnelli and Vandelli edition of Convivio (above, n. 6), p. 368. However, I am omitting their addition of [anche] to the text following "però che" and preceding "altro senso". Such an addition has been correctly labled inutile by M. Simonelli (Materiali per un'edizione critica del "Convivio" di Dante, Roma 1970, p. 156). For the other addition of [comuni] in the same paragraph, see n. 14 below.

12. De anima 2.6; 418a 10-20, in Thomas Aquinas, In Aristotelis Librum de anima, ed. A. M. Pirotta, O. P., Torino 1959, p. 99 (hereafter = In de anima).

13. "Quaeritur de instrumento sensus communis. Et videtur quod sit aliqua pars cerebri. ... Sed Philosophus arguit eius organum esse cor velut aliquid simile cordis in non habentibus cor" ("The discussion is about the organ of the common sense. It seems to be located in a certain part of the brain. ... But Aristotle argues that it is in the heart, or something similar to the heart in cretures without a heart"). Alexander of Hales, Summa theologica 1a. 2i. 360 (Quaracchi, 2: 437-38).

14. Cf. Alexander of Hales, Summa, cit. The addition of [comuni] to "sensibili" in Convivio 3.9.6 was first proposed by M. Romani in 1862, who placed it before the noun. In 1874 G. B. Giuliani accepted Romani's addition but placed it after the noun, so as to read "sensibili [comuni]". This sddition was also defended by E. Moore in 1896, who has since been credited for it (cf. Il Convivio, ed. Busnelli and Vandelli, , 1. 367-68, n. 5). The addition is now accepted by all editions, since it is claimed that it is necessary for the meaning. Elsewhere in the Convivio (4. 8. 6) Dante, in fact, does use the expression "sensibili comuni". Thomas Aquinas uses the expressions "sensibilia propria" and "sensibilia communia" as almost constant terms in his works (cf. In de anima 2. lect. 13; Comm. de sensu et sensato lect., 2. 28ff.; Summa theol., 1a. 78. 3 ad 3; etc.).

15. Thomas Aquinas, In de anima 3. lect. 3. 609, 613. According to Thomas, the fundamental basis of the organic common sense is to be found in touch, but not intended as a proper sense—that is to say, a touch-sense that can perceive contraries within its range such as hot and cold, moist and dry, and so on (Summa theologiae I. 76. 5; see also Alexander of Hales's Summa theologica Ia. 2i. 355) but insofar as it falls into a more general class of sensation which is the general subject of touch (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a. 73. 3 ad 3). As such the sense of touch is the foundation of all senses, and consequently it is the closest to the "fontal root of all senses", that is, the organic common sense. Thomas' view is made clear also in his commentary to Aristotle's De anima (3. lect. 3. 602): [Tactus] est primus sensuum et quodammodo radix et fundamentum omnium sensuum. ... Attribuitur autem ista discretio tactui non secundum quod tactus est sensus proprius, sed secundum quod est fundamentum omnium sensuum et propinquius se habens ad fontalem radicem omnium sensuum, qui est sensus communis. ([Touch] is the first and in a way the root and foundation of all senses. ... This power is attributed to the sense of touch not as a proper sense, but because it is the foundation of all senses and the closest to the fontal root of all senses, which is the common sense). See also n. 23 below.

16. "Attempts to establish it [i. e., synaesthesia] as in itself a sign of illness, degeneration and decadence seem to be inspired largely by prejudice or ignorance" (A. G. Engstrom, "Synaesthesia", Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, Princeton 1965, p. 840).

17. For a detailed description and in-depth analysis of the Thomistic conception of the soul and its cognitive powers in relation to knowledge, see, among others, L. M. Regis, O.P., Epistemology, New York 1959, pp. 157-308.

18. Cf. Summa contra gentiles 2. 75. 1551: Quae enim coniuncta sunt in re, interdum divisim cognoscuntur: simul enim una res est alba et dulcis; visus tamen cognoscit solam albedinem, et gustus solam dulcedinem. (Things which are united in the reality are nonetheless perceived separately, as for instance when something is white and sweet, sight perceives only whiteness, and taste only sweetness).

19. Cf. Thomas Aquinas, In Aristotelis Librum de sensu et sensato, Taurini 1949, p. 81, n. 288.

20. Cf. E. Clive-Rouse and A. Baker, "The Wall-Paintings at Longthorpe Tower", Archaeologia 96(1955), 1-17 and plate 17. For a fuller analysis and interpretation of the Wheel, see G. Casagrande and Ch. Kleinhenz, "Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Wheel of the Five Senses in Longthorpe Tower", Traditio 41(1985): 311-327.

21. It would seem that only four of the animals shown on the rim of the Longthorpe Tower Wheel correspond to the animals representing the five senses according to Thomas of Cantimpré. See His Liber de natura rerum, ed. H. Boepse, Berlin-New York 1973, 1, lib. 4, cap. 1, lines 190-194.

22. With th exception of an earlier but differetly executed fresco dipicting the five senses and found in the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane in Rome. In his study, Carlo Bertelli ("L'enciclopedismo delle Tre Fontane", Paragone 235 (1969): 24-49) has pointed out the similarities between this fresco and the one in Longthorpe Tower.

23 . Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae 1a.73. 3 ad 3, and 1a. 76. 5; In de anima 2. lect. 19. 484; 3. lect. 3. 602; lect. 17, 849; lect. 18. 865. See also Alexander of Hales's Summa theologica 1a. 2i. 355; and cf. n. 15 above.

24. The synaesthetic process may be further clarified by the diagram below. The dotted lines starting at the terminus of each sensation (at the arrowheads) and intersecting the bands or channels of various senses might be taken to represent the mechanism (scanning and combining) of the common sense. This diagram may be read downward and is self-explanatory

Click to view a larger size

Diagram 4

25. "In parte sensitiva invenitur duplex operatio. Una secundum solam immutationem et sic perficitur operatio sensus per hoc immutatur a sensibili. Alia operatio est formatio, secundum quod vis imaginativa format sibi aliquod idolum rei absenti, vel etiam nunquam visae. Et utraque haec operatio coniungitur in intellectu. Nam primo quidem consideratur passio intellectus possibilis secundum quod informatur specie intelligibili. Qua quidem formatus, format secundo vel definitionem vel divisionem vel compositionem, quae per vocem significatur. Unde ratio quam significat nomen, est definitio; et enuntiatio significat compositionem et divisionem intellectus. Non ergo voces significant ipsas species intelligibiles; sed ea quae intellectus sibi format ad iudicandum de rebus exterioribus". ("In the sensitive part two activities take place. One pertains only to the change whereby the sense is altered by the objects perceived. The other activity is a kind of formation whereby the powers of imagination forms a likeness of something absent, or even of something never seen before. Both activities are connected in the intellect. In the first instance we are dealing with the act of the possible intellect insofar as it gives form to an intelligible image. Once this has taken place, it then forms either a definition, or a division or composition which is articulated by the voice. The meaning of a word is the definition; the enunciation means the composition or division of the intellect. Therefore, utterances do not signify the real intelligible forms, but those that the intellect forms for itself when it gives judgment on external things"). Summa theologiae 1a. 85. 2 ad 3.

26. Cf. In de anima 3. lect. 11, 757-759. Abstractions occur in two ways, one of which is "per modum compositionis et divisionis" ("by way of composition and division") (Summa theologiae 1a. 85. 1 ad 1). For a detailed analysis of the intellectual faculty of abstraction and composition, as well as composition and division, see B. G. Lonergan, S.J., Verbum: Word and Idea in Aquinas, Notre Dame, Indiana, 1967. See also P. T. Durbin, "Unity of Composition and Judgment", The Thomist 31 (1967): 83-120.

27. P. Zumthor, Essai de poétique médiévale, Paris 1972, ch. 3.

28. O'Malley (above, n. 8) considera the Divina Commedia as one of the best illustrations of "intersense metaphor and synaesthetic conception". We must recall here also the article of G. Cambon (above, n. 10). With respect to the visual import of "the silent sun" in relation to the synaesthetic attribute that soon afterward Dante uses for Virgil—as "the one who appeared dim for long silence" (1. 63)—see S. Aglianò, s. v. fioco, Enciclopedia dantesca, Roma 1979, II, 893.

29. A. J. Greimas, Sémantique structurale, Paris 1966, chap. 1.

30. I avail myself of the example—somewhat modified—used by E. Guidubali to exemplify the formula for the semantic axis proposed by A. J. Greimas (E. Guidubaldi, "Paradiso XXXIII: Rassegna di ponti semantici analizzati con J. Lacan", Psicoanalisi e strutturalismo di fronte a Dante. II. Lettura della "Commedia", Firenze 1972, pp. 355-437). For the "rapacity" of the wolf a number of authors of bestiaries could be cited. Here is what Thomas of Cantimpré says: "Lupus, ut dicit Iacobus, animal rapacissimum est et fraudolentum" (De rerum natura 4.60). The concept which was also applied to the Church during medieval times (and, of couurse, by Dante himself), is a very ancient one and perhaps stems from Matthew 7:15: "Attendite a falsis prophetis, qui veniunt ad vos in vestimentis ovium: intrinsecus autem sunt lupi rapaces". (Cf. B. Rowland, Animals with Human Faces, Knoxville, Tenn., 1973, pp. 162-63.

31. For some pertinent ideas on communication in art, see G. Dorfles, "Communication and Symbol in the Work of Art", Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism 15 (1957): 289-297.

32. G. W. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford 1968, p. 753.

33. G. Fallani, Dante e la cultura figurativa medievale, Bergamo 1971, pp. 73ff.

34. R. Dragonetti, Dante pélerin de la sainte face (=Romanica Gandensia 11), Ghent 1968, pp. 150-51.

35. Fallani, Dante e la cultura ..., cit., pp. 19-20.

36. Dragonetti, Dante pélerin ..., cit., pp. 277-78.

37. Thomas Aquinas, In de anima 3. lect. 1. 581, (in Aristotle's De anima in the Version of William of Moerbeke and the Commentary of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. K. Foster and S Humphries, New Haven 1951, p. 355.

38. Thomas Aquinas, respectively, In de anima 2. lect. 13. 395; and Summa theologiae 1a. 78. 4.

39. Fallani, Dante e la cultura ..., cit., p. 88 (translation mine).

40. Thomas Aquinas, In de anima 2. lect. 13. 395.

41. Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmum CXL - PL 37. 1818.

42. Expositio in Psalterium: Psal. CXL - PL 170. 1000.

43. De Isaac et anima 5.44 - PL 14. 543.

44. Cf. M-Th. D'Alvery, Alain de Lille: Textes inédits (= Études de philosophie médiévale 52), Paris 1956. I follow the "digression" of the Toulouse MS 195, given by d'Alverny on p. 244, n. y.

45. Cf. Alanus, Distinctiones, s. vv. incensum, fumus, odor - PL 210. 817, 800, 881.

46. Cf. ibid., p. 946. Also see Expositio prosae de angelis, in D'Alverny, Alain ..., cit., pp. 83-84, 201, and n. 24.

47. Examples could be easily multiplied. For a compact survey on the use of incense among various peoples and cults, see E. Fehrenbach, Encense, in Dictionnaire d'archéologie et de liturgieI, Paris 1922, vol 5, cols 2-21.

48. Such is the essence of Momigliano's comment.

49. Along this line—although with reference to a rite in the Eastern Church—it may be interesting to quote a passage of Narsai in which silence, stillness, prayer and incense constitute the best elements of the rite during a pure oblation offered to God: "All the ecclesiastical body now observe silence, and all set themselves to pray earnestly in their hearts. The priests are still and the deacons stand in silence, the whole people is quiet and still, subdued and calm. ... The mysteries are set in order, the censers are smoking, the lamps are shining. ... Deep silence and peaceful calm settle on the place: it is filled and overflows with brightness and splendor, beauty and power ... ". (The Liturgical Homilies of Narsai, in Texts and Studies: Contribution to Biblical History and Literature, ed. J. A. Robinson, vol. 8, no. 1, Cambridge 1909, p. 12.

50. W. Binni, "Il canto XXX del Paradiso", Lectura Dantis Scaligera (above, n. 5), 3: 1085.

51. The following formula is of Anglo-Saxon origin and dates near the end of the tenth century. The entire text is given in Fehrenbach (above, n. 47), p. 18. I am quoting here only part of the last paragraph: "... ubicumque fumus aromatum eius [i. e. of incense] afflaverit, mirabiliter possit atque in odore flagrantissimo tibi, Domine, perpetua suavitate redolere" ("Wherever the savory smoke of incense blows, may it, o Lord, come to you as a very pleasant smell and remain fragrant in perpetual sweetness").

52. O'Malley, "Literary Synaesthesia" (above, n. 8), pp. 409-10.

53. For an extremely suggestive passage describing a perfectly fused process of interiorization of all sensory experiences in relation to divine love, see Augustine, Confessions 10. 6, n. 8.

54. A. J. Greimas has pointed out that some recent studies, besides stressing—at the level of the substance of the content—the importance of determined categories along the line of semantic isotopy (i. e., as categories of gender and number, animate and inanimate, and so on) on the basis of the projection of the morphosyntactic relations of the "énoncé", also "recognize the existence of semiologic isotopes by the utilization through poetic communication of organized codes pertaining to various sensory orders, isomorphic to a large extent and translatable into one another (Bachelard, Lévy-Strauss). This means that they confer a structural status upon the ancient metaphysical notation of "correspondences". See A. J. Greimas, Du sens, Paris 1970, p. 291. See also B. Uspensky, "Structural Isomorphism of Verbal and Visual Art", Poetics 5 (1972): 5-39.

05 JUL 2004