Dante medallion by
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,
Cunctus autem populus
videbat voces et lampadas
et sonitum bucinae
che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perché qui non si trova.
Purgatorio x, 94-96.
* * *
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.
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:
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.
pur sorrisi come l'uom ch'ammicca;
per che l'ombra si tacque e riguardommi
nelli occhi ove 'l sembiante più si ficca;
"Se tanto labore in bene assommi"
disse, "perché la tua faccia testeso
un lampeggiar di riso dimostrommi?"
(Purg. 21. 103-114)
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?"
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:
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)
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!
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:
mi rivolsi dal mio destro lato
per vedere in Beatrice il mio dovere
o per parlare o per atto segnato;
to my right to see in Beatrice my duty shown by language or by gesture.
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:
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)
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.
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
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
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
Here Dante applies the Aristotelian doctrine pertaining to the distinction
between the so called sensibilia propria
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
autem sunt motus, quies, numerus, figura, magnitudo: huiusmodi enim
nullius sensus sunt propria, sed communia omnibus.
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.
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
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:
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.
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
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
... 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:
che mai non vide cosa nova
produsse esto visibile parlare,
novello a noi perché qui non si trova
Whose sight noting was ever new, wrought this visible speech, new to
us because it is not found here.
"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.
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 |
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:
see a larger view
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
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
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.
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.
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"
intagliato lì nel marmo stesso
lo carro e i buoi, traendo l'arca santa,
per che si teme officio non commesso.
parea gente; e tutta quanta,
partita in sette cori, a' due miei sensi
faceva dir l'un "No", l'altro "Sì, canta".
al fummo de li 'ncensi
che v'era imaginato, li occhi e 'l naso
e al sì e al no discordi fensi.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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:
e n s a t i o n
diagram of this specific act of communication could be formulated as
to see a larger view
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.
of the Semantic Axis
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.
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.
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
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.)".
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".
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.
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
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.
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
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".
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.
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".
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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"
giallo della rosa sempiterna
che ... redole
di lode al sol che sempre verna
(Par. 30. 124-126)
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.
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.
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.
05 JUL 2004
O T E S
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
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.
See La Divina Commedia, commento di A. Momigliano, Purgatorio
21, nn. 103-20.
M. Sansone, "Il canto XXI del Purgatorio", Lectura
Dantis Scaligera: Purgatorio, Firenze 1968, pp. 793-826.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
"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,
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.
de sensu et sensato lect., 2. 28ff.; Summa theol., 1a.
78. 3 ad 3; etc.).
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.
"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).
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.
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).
Cf. Thomas Aquinas, In Aristotelis Librum de sensu et sensato,
Taurini 1949, p. 81, n. 288.
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
"Literary and Philosophical Perspectives on the Wheel of the Five
Senses in Longthorpe Tower", Traditio 41(1985): 311-327.
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.
. 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
to view a larger size
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.
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.
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,
A. J. Greimas, Sémantique structurale, Paris 1966, chap.
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.
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.
G. W. Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Oxford 1968, p. 753.
G. Fallani, Dante e la cultura figurativa medievale, Bergamo 1971,
R. Dragonetti, Dante pélerin de la sainte face (=Romanica
Gandensia 11), Ghent 1968, pp. 150-51.
Fallani, Dante e la cultura ..., cit., pp. 19-20.
Dragonetti, Dante pélerin ..., cit., pp. 277-78.
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,
Thomas Aquinas, respectively, In de anima 2. lect. 13. 395; and Summa theologiae 1a. 78. 4.
Fallani, Dante e la cultura ..., cit., p. 88 (translation mine).
Thomas Aquinas, In de anima 2. lect. 13. 395.
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.
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.
Cf. Alanus, Distinctiones, s. vv. incensum, fumus, odor - PL 210.
817, 800, 881.
Cf. ibid., p. 946. Also see Expositio prosae de angelis,
in D'Alverny, Alain ..., cit., pp. 83-84, 201, and n. 24.
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.
Such is the essence of Momigliano's comment.
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.
W. Binni, "Il canto XXX del Paradiso", Lectura Dantis Scaligera
(above, n. 5), 3: 1085.
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
O'Malley, "Literary Synaesthesia" (above, n. 8), pp. 409-10.
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.
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.