Sunday poetry: Dante and wine

Of the entire corpus of Dante’s writings, his Inferno — the first canticle of his Commedia, with its gallery of eternally damned, their sordid tales, and their punishments — is indisputably the most popular (in part because of its inherently cinematic and more immediately accessible content). The other two canticles are much more dense and more difficult to penetrate but they are equally — and in many cases more — inspired, as Dante travels up toward heaven through Purgatorio (see the terraces of Purgatory left) toward Beatrice in Paradiso.

The word vino or wine appears twice in the Commedia, both times in the Purgatorio. In the first instance (Purg. 15, 123), Dante refers to his fatigue, “like a man overcome by wine or sleep.”

In the second, wine plays a much less mundane role. In Purg. 25, 76-78, the Latin poet Statius compares the miracle of winemaking (natural winemaking, I might add) to how God creates life:

    E perché meno ammiri la parola
    guarda il calor del sol che si fa vino,
    giunto a l’omor che de la vite cola.

    And, that you may be less bewildered by my words,
    consider the sun’s heat, which, blended with the sap [must]
    pressed from the vine, turns into wine.

(You can read the tercet in context at the Princeton Dante Project here and I’ve included the Princeton Dante Project commentary to Statius’s lecture on embryology, the physiology of the spirit, and the formation of the aerial body below, together with a link to the entire commentary.)

I had been thinking about this tercet after I posted in Saignée’s 31 Days of Natural Wine Series on the “miracle” of winemaking. (The series continues through July 18 and is definitely worth checking out.)

This passage from Dante is a great example of how Western thinkers and poets saw winemaking as a divine act. I find it beautiful how Dante (in the voice of Statius) uses the example of winemaking to illustrate how life is formed — a concept not easy for the mortal to grasp. As the heat of the sun starts fermentation, so the miracle of grape juice being turned into wine begins. Juice for thought, no?

Thanks for reading and buona domenica! Tracie B and I are off to the movies now…

From the Princeton Dante Project, a great tool for reading, browsing, and studying Dante’s Commedia:

Statius’s lecture on embryology may be paraphrased as follows. He is willing to deal with Dante’s desire to know how the aerial body is formed ([Purg XXV 34-36]): (1) After the ‘perfect blood’ is ‘digested’ (the fourth digestion) in the heart, having now the power to inform all the parts of body, it is ‘digested’ once again and descends into the testicles; (2) it now falls upon the ‘perfect blood’ in the vagina; it is ‘active,’ the latter ‘passive’; (3) the male blood now informs the soul of the new being in the female; (4) but how this soul becomes a human being is not yet clear ([Purg XXV 37-66]). Once the fetal brain is formed, God, delighted with Nature’s work, breathes into it the (rational) soul, which blends with the already existent souls (vegetative and sensitive) and makes a single entity, as wine is made by the sun ([Purg XXV 67-78]). At the moment of death the soul leaves the body but carries with it the potential for both states, the bodily one ‘mute,’ the rational one more acute than in life, and falls to Acheron (if damned) or Tiber (if saved), where it takes on its ‘airy body,’ which, inseparable as flame from fire, follows it wherever it goes; insofar as this new being ‘remembers’ its former shape, it takes on all its former organs of sense and becomes a ‘shade’ ([Purg XXV 79-108]). This ‘lecture’ is put to the task of justifying Dante’s presentation of spiritual beings as still possessing, for the purposes of purgation, their bodily senses even though they have no bodies. Souls in Heaven, we will discover, have no such ‘aerial bodies,’ but are present as pure spirit.

7 thoughts on “Sunday poetry: Dante and wine

  1. Wine – like cheese, like bread, like humanity – ferment and bubble and age and peak and die. It’s no wonder than wine and cheese and bread bring us so much happiness. To me, they are as natural as my own skin and satisfy me like no other food or drink can. Grazie! You remind me to brush up on my Dante.

  2. “…God, delighted with Nature’s work…” What a fascinating dichotomy, and relationship of one to other. How intriguing to contemplate god in awe of “nature”, a pleasing symmetry therein.

  3. “When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them” There it is again nature/god Where have I been?

  4. Caro Jeremy, nel Medioevo il valore divino del vino è tutto proteso a una rappresentazione cristiana e il fatto che nella Divina Commedia e nel RVF di Petrarca le occorrenze siano limitate la dice lunga sulla neutralizzazione che il vino stava subendo (il contatto con la divinità era dato dall’effetto inebriante del nettare di Bacco e questo in era cristiana va censurato).
    Ti faccio un esempio da Petrarca, per mostrare come il vino diventa qualcosa addirittura di negativo:

    136
    Fiamma dal ciel su le tue treccie piova,
    malvagia, che dal fiume et da le ghiande
    per l’altrui impoverir se’ ricca et grande,
    poi che di mal oprar tanto ti giova;
    nido di tradimenti, in cui si cova
    quanto mal per lo mondo oggi si spande,
    de vin serva, di lecti et di vivande,
    in cui Luxuria fa l’ultima prova.
    Per le camere tue fanciulle et vecchi
    vanno trescando, et Belzebub in mezzo
    co’ mantici et col foco et co li specchi.
    Già non fustú nudrita in piume al rezzo,
    ma nuda al vento, et scalza fra gli stecchi:
    or vivi sí ch’a Dio ne venga il lezzo.

    Per trovare invece un valore originario e “divino” nel vino credo che il massimo sia sempre l’Epopea di Gilgamesh, in cui Enkindu per passare dallo stato animalesco a quello umano deve bere vino e avere un’esperienza sessuale.
    Più chiaro di così :)

  5. Caro Luigi, bellissimo il sonetto dei Fragmenta! Sono d’accordissimo con te sul valore e sulla rappresentazione del vino nel medioevo: il Petrarca nelle Familiari parla spesso del problema dell’alcolismo (dei suoi tempi). Importantissime le Senili a Urbano V in cui il Petrarca parla dei cardinali e della loro passione esagerata per i vini della Borgogna (su cui ho fatto un post qualche settimana fa). Ma il Petrarca era pure amante del vino come testimonia una lettera trascritta dal Franceschetti e datata intorno al 1362 (e riportata qui sotto). Grazie per il bellissimo commento! Un abbraccio J

    “il vino generoso del Petrarca”

    Lettera XI

    A Pietro di Bologna

    Compater et amice

    Roccomandagli un giovanetto da educare [Di Venezia, 19 febbraio]

    Manda la lettera che a questa compiego al mio prete D. Giovanni, e colla lettera mandagli la fiasca, o per dir meglio, il fiaschetto tuo per averne un poco, anzi un pocolino di quel vino, o vinetto ch’è antidoto alla lussuria, e conforto alla temperanza.

    [Fracassetti p. 236]

    Pietro da Muglio o Pietro Bolognese, il quale fu maestro di grammatica e di rettorica prima a Padova indi a Bologna.

    Questa lettera 11 ha la data di Venezia e pare che con essa egli dirigesse in Pietro un giovanetto figliuolo di un amico suo, cui forse aveva insegnato grammatica in Venezia Domato, ed ora si voleva che Pietro in Padova insegnasse Rettorica.

    [Don] Giovanni da Bocheta

    dalla vigna del Canonicato [di Padova] spremevasi forse un buon vinetto atto a refocillare le forze senza eccitarle di soverchio, quale si conveniva alla tavola di buon e tmperante ecclesiastico. E di questo voleva il Petrarca che Don Giovanni empisse di quando in quado il fiaschetto al compar Pietro.

    manca l’anno, e che scritta da Venezia non può essere anteriore al 1362
    [p. 237]

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