Twice in the Divine Comedy Dante urges readers to pay special attention to what is about to happen, in two tercets which interrupt the flow of the story; their function is to advise readers that very soon they will be faced with something that demands their greatest concentration. The passages in question are Inferno, IX, 61-63:
O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
Observe the teaching that is hidden here
Beneath the veil of verses so obscure.
and Purgatorio VIII, ll. 19-21:
Here, reader, let your eyes look sharp at truth,
For now the veil has grown so very thin –
It is not difficult to pass within.
Dante scholars agree in thinking that Dante was warning that the next part of the story would be told in an allegorical sense, therefore reader should engage their intellectual capabilities to understand the meaning of what they were about to read. Our purpose in this essay, on the contrary, is to show that the two passages are far from introducing, in their context, an allegory.
Assuming that the veil (velo in the original) in the Purgatorio is the same veil as the one (velame) mentioned in the Inferno, because otherwise we cannot explain that “now” (ora) which makes this one easier to “pass within” than the earlier one, it seems obvious to us that both of these (velame and velo) ‘hide’ the same object. Dante is therefore absolutely not preparing the reader to move to a different narrative level as is commonly believed, but in both cases is informing readers, much more simply, that what comes after these lines, no matter how ‘obscure’, has to do with a precise doctrine, a doctrine which evidently had to have been, in the early fourteenth century, fairly important and which Dante was afraid would slip by unnoticed during a reading of the cantos without some ‘signal’ pointing out its presence. Let’s see what this doctrine is.
In both instances the two tercets precede the arrival of angels (one angel in the first case, two in the second) who enable the pilgrim Dante and his guide Virgil to continue on their path that is being impeded, the first time in the Inferno, by devils who close the gates of the city of Dis and, the second time in the Purgatorio, by the snake from Genesis who appears in the Valley of the Rulers. As emissaries of God the angels thus have to carry out an operation to enable His inscrutable will to be fulfilled, and to do this they come promptly to the aid of the two wayfarers. As we see it, the doctrine which Dante hides beneath the ‘veils’ of the poetic narrative, but onto which at the same time he wants to shine the spotlight of our attention, is precisely the way in which the angels intervene along the journey through the afterlife to implement their saving action. Truth be told, the question of how the angels carried out their duties as ministers of the Lord was, at the time when the poet was writing his great opus, a major doctrinal and delicate issue which was the object of debate between the Franciscans and the Dominicans, in open disagreement with each other.
The center of this theological debate was the problem of angelic location, in other words how an angel could move from one place to another in the Cosmos. According to the Dominicans, under the guidance of Thomas Aquinas, an angel moved from one point to another of the Universe instantaneously, i.e., without covering the space that separated the various places where he was supposed to act. According to the Franciscan theologians, on the contrary, if an angel had to move from A to D, he would have to traverse also the intermediate points B and C. When Dante wrote his Comedy, Thomas’s speculation had not yet become the Church’s official doctrine; moreover, in 1277, the idea that an angel was able to move from one spot to another instantaneously was condemned as contrary to Catholic faith by the bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier.
With that said, Dante found himself in need of taking a stand for one of these two divergent opinions concerning how angels move, and considering the theological importance of the question, he introduced it with those two tercets, given that, since it was not presented in a doctrinal form, it would have to be ‘recognized’ by the reader without an explicit statement on the matter by the poet. Rereading now the passages from Inferno IX, 61-63, and Purgatorio VIII, 19-21, in their context which is anything but allegorical, the clear stance Dante takes on the issue of angelic location is evident. Looking at what the poet says, it is easier to decipher in the passage from Purgatorio. Here he tells not only that he saw, with his own eyes, the two angels coming down from above (lines 24-25: “and I saw, emerging and descending from above, two angels”…) and landing on the two sides of the valley where the souls were gathered (lines 30-32: “and one angel came and stood somewhat above us, while the other descended on the opposite embankment”), but he also assures the reader that he saw the two divine emissaries moving against the serpent who was approaching them (line 105: “but I indeed saw both of them in motion”). Therefore, as the Franciscan tradition maintained, the angels in the Divine Comedy traverse the continuum of space, not traveling instantaneously, as was held, conversely, by the theologians of the Dominican order. Now, if angels move through space in this way, this means that to reach any given point of the Universe they need, in order to do it, a certain span of time, a need that was evidently not contemplated by the doctrine of instantaneous movement, but one that we can see reading between the lines of the Comedy. After informing Dante of the devils’ intention not to allow them to continue their journey beyond the city of Dis, Virgil comforts him by explaining, in the final tercet of Canto VIII of the Inferno, that ‘someone’ has already gone past the gate of Hell to come to their aid:
And now, already well within that gate,
Across the circles – and alone – descends
The one who will unlock this realm for us.
This is the ‘Heavenly Messenger,’ the angel who, dispelling the forces of evil, will open the gates of that hostile city. From the text we understand clearly that to perform this act he does not appear suddenly on the scene, but has to cover the entire distance that separates the divine region from the infernal one, taking time to do it, as line 9 of canto IX demonstrates when Virgil exclaims: “That help seems slow in coming: I must wait!”
As we have said, Dante does not deal with angelic movement in a doctrinal canto resolving a given question using precise arguments; in the Comedy he only says that the Ministers of God move in space and time because this is what he has experienced in the other world, and so that readers will focus their attention on this experience he introduces it with the two notices in Inferno IX, 61-63 and Purgatorio VIII, 19-2. It is easy to understand, then, that Dante scholars (as J. Pépin stated in his entry on ‘Allegory’ in the Enciclopedia Dantesca) expend great effort to decipher the sense of the ‘allegory’ underlying these obscure verses, since they are looking for something that is not there. Dante could not make things any clearer: velame and velo hide the same doctrine, that of the movement of angels, and it is on this that commentators should have focused their attention to understand that the task of these two tercets is to lead readers into a philosophical-theological debate of primary importance in the culture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.