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Le Dante et Virgile entendent, sans les voir, des esprits célestes voler autour d’eux

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CAT 96. Etienne Achille Réveil after John Flaxman. Le Dante et Virgile entendent, sans les voir, des esprits célestes voler autour d’eux. Plate 17 (from canto 13) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

As Dante and Virgil reach the second cornice of Purgatory, the voices they hear overhead are spirits speaking charity, the virtue opposed to the sin of envy of which the unseeing souls on this level of the mountain are being purged. Flaxman creates caring shapes for the charitable voices, as if one is on the lookout for a soul to aid, the other offering himself fully. In Dante’s text, the first voice that “flew by, call’d forth aloud, / ‘They have no wine’”—an allusion to the words of Mary that inspired the miracle by which Jesus turned the water into wine. The second flying voice cries, “I am Orestes”—the words spoken by Phylades in hope of giving his own life for that of his friend. The third voice that flies by asks perhaps the hardest charity of all: “Love ye those have wrong’d you” (13.21-32).

The awkward disposition of Dante’s and Virgil’s bodies reflects the moment in which Virgil, not knowing which way to go, and following the lead of the sun, turns to his right, with Dante following behind. As if to show the narrative importance of the sun in this canto, which takes place shortly after noon, Réveil gives short shadows to both Virgil and Dante (although Virgil, as a spirit, should not, technically, have one). I say that Réveil, rather than Flaxman, gives these shadows because in Piroli’s 1807 engraving of this plate there is only one shadow, falling between the two men, which would put the sun on the left, not the right, if Dante’s body cast it.

The absolute contrast that Dante draws in canto 13 between the charitable voices in the air and the envious souls on the ground parallels that which Melville draws between Billy and Claggart in Billy Budd, Billy’s divinely charitable “God bless captain Vere” contrasting with the “natural depravity” of a man whose capacity for “envy” was “no vulgar form of that passion,” so involuted that he might perhaps “have loved Billy but for fate and ban” (NN BBO 64,28, 30, 38).