Monday, April 27, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Giovanni Cerri, Dante e Omero: Il volto di Medusa. Il vello d'oro 24. Lecce: Argo, 2007. Pp. 156. ISBN 978882343644. €12.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Greta Hawes, University of Bristol

Table of Contents

Dante's Divina Commedia is required reading for classicists interested in the Nachleben of classical literature and myth. Yet, even to those with more than a passing acquaintance with this medieval masterpiece, an entire book devoted to the relationship between Dante and Homer might seem anomalous. Dante could not read Greek and the Homeric epics would not be available in translation for another generation; although Dante's respect for the 'poeta sovrano' is obvious in his work, most gloss this as representative of a vague conception of Homer's general importance. Cerri's ambitious project is to explore this relationship in more detail. Dante e Omero is the record of his search for Dante's Homeric sources. The focus of this study expands remarkably from a simple linguistic correspondence to an exploration of much wider hermeneutical correspondences. The admirable effort that Cerri expounds in tracking Dante's knowledge of Homer is repaid by a number of new insights into the literary worlds of these two poets.

This lively and attractive volume presents an unusual combination of approaches to the relationship between Homer and Dante. It incorporates into an academic detective story work on the realities of textual transmission in the Middle Ages, literary exegesis and meta-literary readings which (as the author himself notes at times, perhaps ironically given the context) test the boundaries of our knowledge of the poet. Far from creating a disjointed or aimless study, however, these different approaches to the material complement and challenge each other in a satisfying way.

It is difficult for a reviewer to do justice to the structure of this work. This slim volume is divided into 24 short chapters which interweave the classical and medieval material and progressively build up Cerri's primary argument while allowing for the discussion of a number of subsidiary issues.

Cerri begins by noting striking parallel: he compares Odysseus' hasty retreat from the underworld in fear of the (potential) arrival of Medusa with a number of passages in the Commedia which seem to allude to it and comment on its significance. After establishing Odysseus' journey as a search for experience and knowledge, he describes Homer's Medusa as the embodiment of the limits imposed on human knowledge (chh. 1-3). Analogies are drawn with the final epiphany of the Paradiso (33.127-141), a vision of the face of Christ which represents salvation and the limitless quality of the Christian experience (ch. 4), and with Inferno 9.52-60 in which Medusa (unseen by the Pilgrim), attempts to prevent his passage only to be vanquished by an angelic figure (chh. 5-6). Drawing on the medieval allegorical tradition, which strongly associated the gorgoneion with sapientia, and Dante's own conception of the proper role of philosophy, Cerri establishes Medusa as an incarnation of the distracting 'donna gentile' of Dante's youth, the symbol of a type of 'razionalità pura senza fede' (p. 44), derived especially from classical speculation, which hampers the Pilgrim's progress. In this way Medusa's petrifying visage is the antithesis of the face of Christ.

Cerri carefully establishes close linguistic echoes between Od. 11.627-637 and Inf. 9.52-60, echoes which he rightly considers to be more striking than simple coincidence or indirect transmission (specifically via Aen. 6.540-636 and Luc. 6.423-749) would allow (chh. 8-12). This sets in place a search for sources and for evidence of what Dante might conceivably have known of the Homeric epics. At this time, Greek texts certainly existed, but translators were required. Cerri portrays late medieval Italy as a place in which Greek scholars and diplomats, envoys and emigrants from the Byzantine Empire, while rare, might still be encountered (chh. 16-17). He speculates on those individuals that Dante might have had occasion to meet or seek out during his travels in central Italy and (perhaps) in Paris, but is ultimately unable to provide firm evidence for his having encountered a translation of the passage from Od. 11. While an ingenious suggestion, Cerri freely, and rightly, admits that his reading of a letter of Petrarch's as making a punning reference to a translation of this passage in his possession is 'un'ipotesi estrema' (ch. 15). More fruitful is his provision of a catalogue of Homeric passages which were known indirectly by medieval writers (19-20). This catalogue is accompanied by fascinating commentary which builds up a portrait of the reception of Homer in classical and medieval literature. Here Cerri finds some useful correspondences with Dante's work as well as sources for Dante's recurring positive estimation of this 'long-lost' poet.

The final chapters seek to read these intertextual allusions more broadly. Cerri establishes broad analogies between the Dantean Pilgrim, the Homeric Odysseus and the Dantean Ulisse as narrators of their own literary journeys. They stand ultimately in contradiction to each other through their differing searches for sapientia. Finally, we are faced with Homer as he appears in the Commedia: an imposing figure worthy of reverence. The Homer of Inf. 4 carries a sword which has traditionally been interpreted as a reference to his reputation for martial poetry. Cerri offers new readings of this element which interact with the overarching themes of Dante's work.

Despite the obvious amount of scholarship required by his project, references and philological discussion are kept to a minimum. The volume is certainly approachable. All passages are quoted in translation with the exception of a few simple ones from medieval Latin sources. In this way, the material presented, especially the textual interpretation, does not attempt to be exhaustive or to interact fully with the wealth of scholarship already in existence. The bibliography, divided into thematic sections, goes some way to rectifying this situation by providing suggestions for further reading. The extreme brevity with which Cerri presents his arguments, while part and parcel of a publication of this type, does lead to some frustrating lacunae, of which a more nuanced discussion of the medieval tradition of allegorical exegesis is perhaps the most obvious.

Projects in classical reception require classicists to bridge disciplines and to move outside of their areas of expertise. The best studies in this field cast new light on both the classical tradition and the world of antiquity in ways which maintain the integrity of both fields. Cerri's discussion of Odysseus' wanderings across the Mediterranean and into the underworld as representing the thirst for knowledge displayed by Archaic Greece, while necessarily narrow and perhaps somewhat anachronistic in terms of what follows, does encourage the reassessment of a number of familiar passages. Cerri establishes his reading of the Commedia material within the pattern, well-established in amongst Dantisti, of Dante's conception of the seductive and praiseworthy, but ultimately misguided and limited, types of knowledge available in classical antiquity which are superseded by knowledge of Christ. This approach is typified by previous scholarship on the famous Ulisse episode of Inf 26 in which the hero's voyage signifies the arrogance of the ancient pursuit of 'virtute e canoscenza'. Cerri's contributions to this general model, although relatively minor, are thought provoking and presented with the sensitivity and subtlety expected of those teasing interpretations out of the densely allusive Commedia. His specific reading of the figure of Medusa takes the discussion of this passage in quite a different direction than that offered recently by Balducci.1

The most valuable part of this study is an undertaking, to my knowledge never before attempted on this scale, to delineate and gather together the possible knowledge that Dante might have had of the Homeric works. Cerri's discussion of the existence of Greek-speakers on the Italian peninsula and their impact on the surrounding culture provides a timely consideration of this aspect of Dante's possible cultural ambit. The collection and collation of information on Homer and the Homeric works available to Dante through intermediary literary sources has been attempted previously, although without the aim of a systematic study.2 As Cerri notes, his own catalogue of sources is also necessarily partial: he hopes that it will spur a more detailed study (p. 97). Although only briefly expounded in places, this material provides an excellent resource which should be of use to scholars of both Greek literature and reception and Dante studies.


1.   Marino Alberto Balducci, Classicismo dantesco: miti e simboli della morte e della vita nella Divina Commedia. 2nd edition. Rimini, 2004. Esp. pp. 197-267.
2.   E.g. Giorgio Brugnoli, 'Omero', in Amilcare A. Iannucci (ed.), Dante e la bella scola della poesia: autorità e sfida poetica. Ravenna, 1993.

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