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Dans le cercle des ombres colères, le Dante aveuglé par le fumée qui s’en exhale, s’appuie sur l’épaule de Virgile

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CAT 99. Étienne Achille Reveil after John Flaxman. Dans le cercle des ombres colères, le Dante aveuglé par le fumée qui s’en exhale, s’appuie sur l’épaule de Virgile. Plate 20 (from canto 16) in Purgatoire du Dante. Paris: Audot, 1833. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

At the beginning of canto 16, Virgil and Dante enter a mass of clouds so dark and acrid that Dante must close his unseeing eyes, relying on Virgil’s “shoulder for a stay.” This is the moment depicted in Flaxman’s Region of Smoke, as Dante “journey’d through that bitter air and foul,” walking “as the blind man behind his leader” (16.6-12). In the lighter billows of those clouds Flaxman shows three of those spirits who are purging themselves of wrath by singing the Agnus dei in concord. Their spatial harmony and contrasting physiognomies match the three-part form of that prayerful chant. Their physical separation from Virgil and Dante, and their open lips, indicate that they make themselves known primarily through sound, not sight.

One of these once wrathful spirits, Marco Lombardo, speaks with Dante for the balance of the canto about the role of free will in the path to spiritual grace, explaining, too, how Rome, which was once “good,” when power was shared between secular and spiritual authority, has been reduced to evil in the hands of a church by which “the sword / Is grafted on the crook” (16.108-13). Melville, whose alienation from the ruling authorities of his own day was at times as strong as Dante’s or Marco’s from theirs, shared their need both to analyze the spiritual condition of the body politic and to purge the resulting wrath in some variation of that peace which comes from the lamb of god in the Agnus dei. In Melville’s copy of the Cary translation I examined in the William Reese Collection, Melville had marked the conversation between Dante and Marco on the origin of evil in human life—both the passage in which Dante asks why “the world is even so forlorn / Of all good” and the one in which Marco, acknowledging “the world is blind,” argues yet that if all good or evil were determined by heaven, then man would have no “free choice” (16.57-60). Melville made many additional marks in the Purgatory between cantos 24 and 33, but none in the first fourteen cantos for which Melville owned illustrations by Flaxman.

In Melville’s writings, one of the last manifestations of the “lamb of god” (Agnus dei) is that moment in Billy Budd in which “the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision” as Billy “ascended” in the “rose of the dawn” by the choke of the noose (NN BBO 65). The ironic circumstance that creates this appearance of seeming transcendence shows the “philosophical irony” that, as Schless noted, undercuts most of Melville’s ventures into Dante’s most transcendent ground (Schless 82).

Melville’s copy of this print has a large brown circular stain below its image and incriptions, probably dating from Melville’s period of ownership. I expect that a forensic archivist might be able to detect its source. A shadow of the same stain is visible in the same place on the next print in the series (CAT 100).