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A la vue du Dante et de Virgile, les âmes reculent de surprise

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CAT 85. Étienne Achille Reveil after John Flaxman. A la vue du Dante et de Virgile, les âmes reculent de surprise. Plate 6 (from canto 3) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Flaxman’s drawing from canto 3, The Vestibule of Purgatory, depicts the moment in which the spirits at the foot of the mountain “stopp’d, / And somewhat back retired,” upon seeing the shadow from Dante’s “right side fall broken on the ground” (3.87-90). The cast shadow does not register upon the feet of the foremost spirits, whose unsubstanced souls do not themselves block the light from the sun. Virgil’s subordinate position to Dante reflects the earlier part of the canto in which Dante at first feared Virgil was absent because Dante saw no shadow next to his own. Virgil in the ensuing conversation mentions that “the body in which I cast a shade” when alive had been moved from Brandusium to Naples (3.25-26), presumably to the same site at which Melville visited the ruins of “Virgil’s tomb” in Naples in 1857 (NN J 103). Virgil then expresses his sorrow for the souls of such great intellects as Plato and Aristotle, who had “desired fruitlessly” to achieve a rational understanding of a world whose divinity must remain mysterious to the human mind (3.37-44), an issue as central in Melville’s intellectual and spiritual life as it had been in those of Virgil and Dante. 

Flaxman deftly catches the hesitant, retrograde motion of the sheeplike flock of souls who are taken aback by the sign of Dante’s shadow. He does not distinguish by either the “gash” upon the “brow” or the “wound” upon the “breast” the figure of Manfredi who is soon to emerge from the crowd (3.111-14). A notable Epicurean in life, excommunicated after death, Manfredi boldly requests Dante’s intercession, upon returning to earth, for those prayers that would shorten the years that saved souls (such as his own) will have to wait to expiate the state of having converted almost too late.