Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Enter Manfred: Purgatorio 3

biondo era e bello e di gentile aspetto ...

Before we look at the role of Manfred in detail in Purgatorio 3, his entrance is worth noting.

Dante and Virgil have just realized that the mountain seems unscalable, when they encounter a slow-moving group of souls:
As sheep come issuing forth from out the fold
By ones and twos and threes, and the others stand
Timidly, holding down their eyes and nostrils, 
And what the foremost does the others do,
Huddling themselves against her, if she stop,
Simple and quiet and the wherefore know not; 
So moving to approach us thereupon
I saw the leader of that fortunate flock,
Modest in face and dignified in gait.  (Longfellow)
Imagine now that one from this tame little flock comes forward, who turns out to be a combination of Mohammed Ali, John Kennedy, and Mick Jagger. That's basically the level of incongruity presented after this unhurried extended simile by the appearance of Manfred, the Ghibelline chieftain who challenged and was excommunicated by three Popes; who commanded Saracens, Greeks, Italians and Germans against the Papal forces, and, wagering all on one great battle at Beneventum, lost all.

So a key element here is humor -- the canto slyly sets up a detailed image of the least contumacious-looking group imaginable, then springs its comedic trap: out walks the love child of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. Smiling, Manfred will speak of his body's brutal disfigurement, death and spiteful exhumation on orders of the Pope. He is Dante's counter-image to the figure of Palinurus, Aeneas's unburied helmsman in Aeneid V and VI.

The web of ironies in Manfred's story is rich, and we'll look at the interplay with the figure of Palinurus in another post. This first moment of surprise strikes the comedic note for what follows. It's the shock of the impossible made possible.

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