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.