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Virgile, par ses gestes et ses paroles, invite le Dante à saluer l’ ombre de Caton d’Utique

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CAT 80. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Virgile, par ses gestes et ses paroles, invite le Dante à saluer l’ ombre de Caton d’Utique. Plate 1 (from Canto 1) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Cato (Caton d’Utique) is the first figure Vigil and Dante encounter after emerging from the depths of hell. Flaxman’s drawing does not depict such details from Dante’s text as Cato’s beard or the glow of his face. Flaxman does, however, depict Cato’s august stature, and the united humility with which Virgil and Dante receive his benedictory gesture. Although Virgil and Dante merge almost into one figure, Flaxman distinguishes them clearly by visage as well as by dress (Virgil’s bare foot and laurelled hair vs. Dante’s covered foot and hooded head). Surrounding Cato’s head are the “Four stars” of Dante’s canto, interpreted in Cary’s footnote as “symbolical of the four cardinal virtues, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance” (1.24). Their soft morning glow, sweetly rendered by Flaxman, adds a quiet ecstasy to the escape from the inferno. One difference already between the Réveil and Piroli etchings of Flaxman’s drawing: Réveil shows Cato’s mouth; Piroli does not.

Flaxman’s depictions of Dante’s Purgatory release into narrative action the Virgil who was engraved as an antique bust by George Cooke (CAT 71). For Melville as a close reader of both The Aeneid and The Divine Comedy, this first plate of the Purgatory would have evoked an escape from the underworld of both Virgil and Dante. On his visit to Lake Avernus in 1857 Melville had made his own “Descent” into the site of the “Infernal regions” in Virgil’s Aeneid, asking himself, “What in God’s name were such places made for, & why? Surely man is a strange animal. Diving into the bowels of the earth rather than building up towards the sky. How clear an indication that he sought darkness rather than light” (NN J 104).

The Cato who allows Virgil and Dante into Purgatory is Cato the younger, the Roman soldier and statesman (95-46 B.C.) to whom Ishmael alludes in the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick: “With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship” (NN MD 3). By making this notable suicide and ancient pagan an honorable guide to purgatory, rather than consigning him to the inferno, Dante makes a judgment different from the traditional one of the Roman Catholic church. Cato in canto 1 of Dante’s Purgatory refers to his love for Marcia, who “was so pleasing in my sight” that he did “all she ask’d me” (1.85-87). One of the things Cato had most famously done for Marcia, his second wife, who had borne his three children, was to grant her request to leave him in order to marry his friend Hortensius (CAT 72), after whose death Cato took her back.