Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Valley of the Princes

In Dante’s Purgatory (Canto VII), the shade of Sordello leads his fellow poets Dante and Virgil to the Valley of the Princes. This is the description of what they see there, taken from the 1815 Henry Cary translation that is freely available on Project Gutenberg:
Betwixt the steep and plain a crooked path
Led us traverse into the ridge's side,
Where more than half the sloping edge expires.
Refulgent gold, and silver thrice refin'd,
And scarlet grain and ceruse, Indian wood
Of lucid dye serene, fresh emeralds
But newly broken, by the herbs and flowers
Plac'd in that fair recess, in color all
Had been surpass'd, as great surpasses less.
Nor nature only there lavish'd her hues,
But of the sweetness of a thousand smells
A rare and undistinguish'd fragrance made.
According to Mark Musa, Dante creates a locus amoenus here that is unique in classical and medieval literature. Such a place would normally be described to the reader in terms of its natural features and living creatures, but here the valley is likened to precious stones, metals, dyes and pigments. As Musa says, “thanks to the list of metaphors, we are offered artificial opulent beauty, not the pure beauty of nature” (see notes to Musa’s translation). It is a fitting place for the souls of Negligent Rulers and contrasts strongly with the Garden of Eden which Dante reaches at the top of Mount Purgatory.
Musa notes that John Ruskin thought the description of Eden in Canto XXVIII “the sweetest passage of wood description which exists in literature”. Musa’s translation is indeed striking and makes it easy to understand why Ruskin thought this (the Cary version with its ornate English is less easy to appreciate, although the atmosphere is well conveyed by Gustave Doré’s 1867 illustration). For more about Ruskin’s reflections on Purgatory in his book Modern Painters see the Victorian Web.

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