Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression

Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression

Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression

Dante and the Unorthodox: The Aesthetics of Transgression


During his lifetime, Dante was condemned as corrupt and banned from Florence on pain of death. But in 1329, eight years after his death, he was again viciously condemned-this time as a heretic and false prophet-by Friar Guido Vernani. From Vernani's inquisitorial viewpoint, the author of the Commedia "seduced" his readers by offering them "a vessel of demonic poison" mixed with poetic fantasies designed to destroy the "healthful truth" of Catholicism. Thanks to such pious vituperations, a sulphurous fume of unorthodoxy has persistently clung to the mantle of Dante's poetic fame.

The primary critical purpose of Dante & the Unorthodox is to examine the aesthetic impulses behind the theological and political reasons for Dante's allegory of mid-life divergence from the papally prescribed "way of salvation." Marking the septicentennial of his exile, the book's eighteen critical essays, three excerpts from an allegorical drama, and a portfolio of fourteen contemporary artworks address the issue of the poet's conflicted relation to orthodoxy.

By bringing the unorthodox out of the realm of "secret things," by uncensoring them at every turn, Dante dared to oppose the censorious regime of Latin Christianity with a transgressive zeal more threatening to papal authority than the demonic hostility feared by Friar Vernani.


Da quinci innanzi il mio veder fu maggio

che 'l parlar mostra, ch'a tal vista cede,

e cede la memoria a tanto oltraggio.

Paradiso 33.55–7

The Dantean keyword for this volume is oltraggio. Mere "abundance" doesn't capture its meaning. Nor does "superabundance," which stumbles towards it abstractly in a thudding divinity-school way. Since Dante uses it with the ecstatically redundant qualifier tanto, it must signify a limitless plenitude "so great"—as if there were degrees of greatness in such things—that it trumpets the defeat of all his theological attempts at definition and suspends him in a rhetorical hush on the far side of hyperbole.

With oltraggio he struggles nevertheless to express the unboundedness of his final vision. Through this word he impels us into a doctrinally explosive moment, which he claims he experienced quite unexpectedly while directing his eyes at the Divine Light: "Thenceforward my vision was greater / than speech can show, which fails at such a sight, / and memory yields to so great…" So great a what? What oltraggio could be so great that even its greatness cannot be remembered?

St. Anselm's memorable definition of God as "that than which nothing greater can be thought" is not much help at this point, if it ever was, for its purpose was to aid ordinary human minds struggling at a great distance from God to understand the uniqueness of divine existence. That's not Dante's problem in the Empyrean. His is no ordinary human mind, as he repeatedly reminds us. He has already shown us all the great stars . . .

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