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Title:True flesh: pilgrimage, measure, and perfecting the human in Dante’s 'Commedia'
Author(s):Flack, Corey J
Director of Research:Stoppino, Eleonora
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Stoppino, Eleonora
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Rushing, Robert; Trilling, Renée; Cachey, Theodore J
Department / Program:French and Italian
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Material culture
Abstract:Critics of Dante’s Commedia have frequently maintained that the 14th-century poem depicts a “pilgrimage” in the sense of a journey to God, undertaken both in imitation of the actual practice of pilgrimage to holy sites such as Jerusalem and Santiago de Compostela, as well as of the Biblical Exodus, a journey from the exile of earthly life to the true patria of Heaven. Yet, since the middle of the 20th century, this label has been taken for granted, without acknowledging a pivotal characteristic that determines both these historical precedents which is mirrored in Dante’s text: the human body. This study maintains that the Commedia should be read according to Dante’s understanding of the term “peregrinatio,” the Latin word from which our English “pilgrimage” derives. Properly speaking, while the human body was considered the source of man’s alienation from God, it is conversely also its source of potential inclusion through the figure of Christ, who, through the Incarnation, partook of both human and divine natures. Peregrinatio manifests this process of salvation through movement in imitation of Christ, allowing for the proper reintegration of humanity in the order of the universe and for the true revelation of man’s resemblance to Christ that is revealed in the poem’s final vision of God. Chapters 1-3 contextualize Dante’s understanding of peregrinatio in both his works and broader medieval thought. Chapter 1 reveals how the entire journey of the Commedia is framed by the experience of Christ and how the reflection of the Incarnation in the character Dante enables the potential for salvation. By analyzing the etymology and history of the term—originally denoting exile and travel in Roman culture, but then theologized to humanity’s ontological state by the Church Fathers—we can see how Dante’s understanding of the process was more nuanced than critics typically attest in their use of the labels “pilgrim” or “pilgrimage.” Dante utilizes the polysemic nature of the word to portray the Commedia as the praxis of peregrinatio, a process of recognizing one’s resemblance to Christ. Chapter 2 continues by focusing on how the above process manifests as the journey of physical movement presented in the poem. Classical usage of peregrinatio often indicated motion in space, a meaning that was transferred to the historical phenomenon of pilgrimage. Dante considered pilgrimage as travel to a holy place in order to access the sacred, which was done, as the cult of relics indicates, through the body and the sense of touch. Dante’s understanding of this action is then contextualized by reading the relationship constructed between the body and sacred space in pilgrimage literature. These accounts reveal that people in the Middle Ages understood space through a sense of personal interaction and physical presence, emerging from primarily walking around and the absence of maps. This, connected with the practice of measuring holy spaces and relics, demonstrates that the body was thought to be necessary in order to access the sacred and reveal one’s resemblance to God. Chapter 3 utilizes the understanding of peregrinatio furnished by the first two chapters to look specifically at the Commedia. The Christological dimension of this process informs Dante’s journey from the first verses of the Inferno, where Dante repeatedly encounters signs of salvation through Christ much as pilgrims who journeyed to the Holy Land. The presence of these factors reveals that Dante recognized his journey as having to be carried out in imitation of Christ, and that this informs the potential of his text to lead its readers to salvation as well. The peculiarity of this conception emerges in the fact that Dante, through the presence of his human body, permanently alters the landscape of Hell, something that no one before or after has done, with the sole exception of Christ. Chapter 4-6 turn their focus to the end point of this process of peregrinatio experienced in the final vision of God at the end of the Commedia and the identification of man’s image in God through the Incarnation. Dante expresses this relationality through a simile of a geometer trying to measure a circle. While it is typically argued that this is merely a reference to the impossible geometric problem of squaring the circle, that reading does not attend to the use of “measure” and its precedents in Dante’s other works. Instead, measure was understood through a complex set of dynamics that permeated various aspects of medieval life, from intellectual activity to trade. In this regard, Dante utilizes the term to express how the imitation of Christ central to the process of peregrinatio actually takes place: by establishing an intertwined metaphysical and ethical understanding of humanity. Chapter 4 examines the history of the idea of measure as it would have been known to Dante, from: the Bible, Greek philosophy, Christian theology, courtly ethics, and material culture. While each thinker and tradition expresses different aims, measure is universally used to denote a sense of a larger order to which man wishes to belong. Specifically in the Christian tradition, this manifests through a history of interpretation around Wisdom 11:21’s statement of the universe being ordered by God in “measure, number, and weight.” This reveals itself to operate by the same mechanics of peregrinatio, as this triad was seen as a trace of Trinity in all creation and as dictating the ways in which ethical behavior can comport oneself to Christ. Chapter 5 utilizes these precedents to examine Dante’s complex use of the term measure in his works outside of the Commedia. Particularly in his growing education after his exile in 1301, Dante became increasingly aware of the intellectual richness behind the concept, which he seeks to ground specifically in Aristotelian thought and scholastic theology, predominantly in the Convivio and the Monarchia. The use of measure in both these texts displays Dante’s grasp of its Christological richness, where proper ethical action “measured” by the standard of Christ can induce the ontological change that was the goal of peregrinatio, allowing for participation in the divine order. Chapter 6 returns to the Commedia and the simile of the geometer to contextualize the 20 uses of forms of misura (measure) in the poem according to Dante’s previous utilization of the term and the intellectual inheritance discussed in chapter 4. This reading reveals that, contrary to typical scholarship on the word, Dante does not use it as an Italian rendering of the Aristotelian mean—the conception of virtue as the middle ground between the extremes of vice—but rather views misura as an active process conceived through Christ. Through a series of uses of the verb “to measure,” Dante depicts the culmination of the process of peregrinatio to express the goal of full personhood, body and soul, in the image of Christ, and thereby as a return to the full potential for which humanity was created.
Issue Date:2017-03-27
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Corey Flack
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-08-10
Date Deposited:2017-05

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