The Infinite Beauty of the World

Dante’s Encyclopedia and the Names of God

by Jason M. Baxter (Author)
©2020 Monographs VI, 182 Pages
Series: Leeds Studies on Dante, Volume 4


This book proposes a radically new interpretation of the Comedy’s encyclopedism by focusing on Dante’s work in light of the medieval imago mundi tradition. The work opens with a discussion of how the Florentine poet transgressed every generic boundary in his effort to gather «into one volume» a vast and varied set of creatures, places, landscapes, historical and mythological persons, weather conditions, and arts. It then goes on to show that this extraordinary encyclopedic breadth should be understood in the terms of Boethian and Augustinian spiritual exercises of envisioning the whole world in the mind’s eye, which themselves became the interpretive framework for the spiritual ends behind medieval encyclopedic texts. By bringing attention to Latin Platonism and twelfth-century authors (such as Alan of Lille, Bernard Silvestris, William of Conches, Hugh of St. Victor, and Thierry of Chatres), this book provides compelling new readings of the De vulgari eloquentia, as well as provocative insights into key figures (such as Brunetto Latini, Pier della Vigna, and Ulysses) and key passages (Purgatorio 28, Paradiso 26, and Paradiso 33).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction From Macrobius’s Sacrum Poema to Dante’s Comedìa
  • Chapter 1 The View from Above and the Vision of the Heart
  • Chapter 2 Universaliter et Membratim: The Imago Mundi and Dante’s Volume
  • Chapter 3 The Failed Encyclopedism of Hell
  • Chapter 4 The Garden of Eden and the Universal Garden
  • Chapter 5 Innominis/Omninominis: Dante, Mirrors, and the Infinite Names of God in Paradiso
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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From Macrobius’s Sacrum Poema to Dante’s Comedìa

By the time Dante calls his work “comedìa” (Inf. 16.128) and implicitly likens his poem to a wildly “painted” monster of exceptional hybridity (Inf. 17.1–27), the pilgrim has finished only the first half of his journey through hell. Nevertheless, he has already forded rivers, passed through swamps, climbed a hill, slid down mountainous scree, taken delight in a courtly garden, tromped through mud, entered through gates, wandered through a graveyard, traversed a wilderness (“la piaggia deserta,” 1.29), skirted a barren desert, and pushed through the thick underbrush of an eerie forest. In other words, the monster that the poet swears he saw resembles the poem that the poet swears by, in its varietas or hybridity.1 In addition to passing through this varietas of landscapes, the pilgrim, even before descending to deep hell, has been buffeted by almost every kind of precipitation or rough weather: volcanic irruptions of wind and light (Inf. 3.133–34); wind storms (Inf. 5); hail, rain, snow (6.10); flakes of fire (6.15); or (subjectively) “breaking” waves (7.22–23) and “dangerous sea” (1.24). The pilgrim passes through an encyclopedia of landscapes and temperamental conditions. By contemporary standards, the poet has literalized what Virgil was presumed to have included in the Aeneid by learned implication. In order to explain this, and draw attention to the peculiar nature of Dante’s achievement, I would like to compare, briefly, Dante’s encyclopedic imagination to what Virgil was presumed to have done.

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Medieval commentators were convinced that a whole world of learning was hidden beneath the narrative details of the Aeneid. The places Aeneas visits, the instruments (such as swords or boats) by which he accomplishes his tasks, or the names of the characters with whom he interacts (such as the Sybil, Anchises, or Polydorus) were read as “coverings” or “wrappings” [integumentum or involucrum], and those trained in the art could “unfold” [explicatio/explicare] the deep meanings that had been “enfolded” [implicatio] in the text, recording those deep meanings within the margins of the page.2 For instance, Bernard Silvestris, in his commentary on Martianus Capella’s De nuptiis, devotes five whole pages in to the explication of a single word: “pugillus.”3 The late antique author, Martianus, had rather innocently said that Jupiter sometimes cancels an earlier decree, even ←2 | 3→if he had already “passed a sentence and the hand of the Parcae [Parcarum pugillo] are waiting to carry out his order.”4 But when reading the pagan author, Bernard remembered that in Isaiah the prophet had referred to the right hand of the Lord – his pugillus – by which he rules all things.5 This biblical line authorized Bernard to take the reference in Martianus to pugillus, a reference that occurs within the context of a discussion of Jupiter passing decrees, as a hidden reference to the governing power of God, and, by implication, the totality of the sensible world that is ruled by such providence. Thus, hidden underneath a single word an important medieval commentator found a whole world of meaning:

[T];his world is a sensible book [mundus hic sensilis liber quidam] that has divinity written into it. Individual creatures are letters and reveal some aspect of divinity. For the immensity of the world [immensitas mundi] reveals divine power. The beauty of the world divine wisdom. The utility of the world divine goodness.

Bernard then shows how observing these natural “traces” lifts the mind to God. For example,

The immensity of the world is subdivided into multitude and magnitude. See how the [world’s] multitude clearly figures forth power: look at the stars of the heaven, the sands of the sea, the dust of the earth, the drops of water, the feathers of birds, the scales of fish, the hairs of animals, the grass of the fields, and the fruit and leaves of the trees. The individual creatures [singula] are not only innumerable, but the kinds of creatures are also innumerable [set etiam innumerabilia genera]. (109)

What follows next are five pages – mainly lifted from Hugh of St. Victor’s De tribus diebus – devoted to cataloguing all the kinds of creatures.6 ←3 | 4→For example, when Bernard (following Hugh) turns to the category of “magnitudo,” he enumerates “the mass of mountains, the courses of rivers, the spaces of fields, the height of heaven, and the depth of the abyss” (111) as examples. Later, he argues that the beauty of the world can also be found in extraordinary shapes, variety of color, that which is huge, tiny, unusual, particularly beautiful, or even monstrous. All these things cause us to marvel, such as giants among men, whales among fish, gryphons among birds, elephants among quadrupeds, and dragons among serpents (112–13). In fact, Bernard, in a variation of a well-known Boethian dictum, argues that the more wild the diversity of creation then the greater and more enchanting is the harmonia which keeps it all together [tanta itaque est proportio quanta dissona vinciuntur] (60), a perfect one-line expression of what Paul Binski and Mary Carruthers have described as the “Gothic” aesthetic.7 In sum, Bernard found the whole cosmos hidden under the integumentum of a single word.

Similarly, in his earlier commentary on Virgil, Bernard Silvestris took hold of a single narrative detail and found a complete schema of all possible meteorological conditions. In Aeneid I, Juno promises to give Aeolus her handmaid, Deiopea, if he will help her by wrecking Aeneas’s fleet: “I happen to have some sea-nymphs, fourteen beauties, / Deiopea the finest of all by far … / I’ll join you in lasting marriage” (Aeneid I.85–87).8 Bernard reasons ←4 | 5→that because Juno is associated with the element of air, her handmaidens must be “the natural properties and effects of air, that is, the qualities and varieties of storms. They wait upon Juno, and they are the aspects of air: lightness, mobility, heat, moisture, clearness, thinness, and respirability.” Seven handmaidens. The “other seven handmaidens of Juno are the seven storms of the air. We call them aerial storms either because air produces them or because they are produced in air. Three are … rain, second hail, third snow.” But it gets more complicated. These three forms of precipitation always accompany Iris: “Thus, Iris is the first of Juno’s handmaidens to have her own handmaidens, the second is the whirlwind [phiton], the third is the comet [cometa], the fourth is lightning [fulmen], the fifth is thunder [tonitruum], the sixth is smoke [fumigatio], and the seventh is earthquake [terremotus]. And so we have said that these tempests are aerial because they occur either in the air or by means of the air and thus they are Juno’s handmaidens.”9 ←5 | 6→In sum, thanks to Bernard’s explication, the medieval reader learned that Virgil had a reservoir of meteorological knowledge dammed up by a few words dedicated to Juno’s negotiation with Aeolus. This is an example of what Bernard meant about the hidden depths of Virgil: the great philosopher had used “integumenta” and “involucra,” poetic figments, to cover up his scientia (Jones and Jones, 1–4).10 As I will soon discuss, passages like this ←6 | 7→shape the context in which we should think about Dante’s encyclopedia of landscapes mentioned above.

Seven centuries before Bernard Silvestris, the fifth-century pagan author, Macrobius, argued the same thing about Virgil. Macrobius, too, admired Virgil’s Aeneid for its copia and varietas:

For the interlocutors, the comparison runs the risk of irreverence: Virgil is being likened to the creator of the world, the opifex deus, and his encyclopedic poem includes the whole of the cosmos. One hellenophile depicted in the dialogue scornfully mocks: “Bravo! You compare to god-the-craftsman [opifici deo] a poet from the hinterland of Mantua …” (V.2.1). The answer is: Yes, and Macrobius is willing to spend three hundred pages to prove it. In essence, though, Macrobius argues that Virgil developed a balanced ecology of poetic styles that imitates the variety of landscapes ←7 | 8→spread throughout Nature (V.1.4–5). Virgil’s copious writing overflows like a sea, spring, or font [quis fons, quis torrens, quod mare tot fluctibus quod hic verbis hic verbis inundavit, V.1.10], but he also works in the “dry style” [genus siccum], while not neglecting to speak in “florid speech” [florida oratione]. The linguistic surface of Virgil’s poem is as variegated as the topography of the earth. Virgil’s poem is one of “abundant variety” [copia rerum; I.24.12], but, more importantly, because the “Vergilianum volumen” (V.3.17) includes the whole “Temple of the Cosmos,” it can also be called “the temple of the sacred poem” full of “secret meaning” (I.24.13). The text of Virgil is a shrine for worship, a “sacrum poema.”12 For the same reasons, centuries later, Bernard Silvestris classified Virgil’s books among “misticis voluminibus” (Jones and Jones, 9).

In light of Virgil and other auctores’ presumed encyclopedic knowledge, cryptically hinted at in any one word, Dante’s overt use of encyclopedic details is striking. The marginalia have moved, as it were, back from the margins to dwell in the center. For instance, within the first 16 canti of Inferno Dante mentions explicitly almost every form of “Juno” allegedly hidden within Aeneid I. Aeneas suffers shipwreck in Virgil’s first book, which Bernard interprets in this way: “the sea is understood as the human body, because drunkenness and desire (which are the waters) flow from it, and the turbulence of vice is in it” (12). Thus, the sea reminds us of what is not explicitly present in the text, lustful bodies. But in Dante, what was hinted at implicitly in Virgil (lustful bodies) is now explicitly suspended within “la bufera infernal” (Inf. 5.31) that moans “come fa mar per tempesta” (5.29). But even before the windstorm, the pilgrim had been scared witless by an earthquake (“tremò sì forte,” Inf. 3.128). Dante explains that “la terra lagrimosa diede vento, / che balenò una luce vermiglia” (3.133–34). For a modern reader, it is not obvious why an earthquake is associated with erupting wind and flashing light, but in his gloss on Juno’s handmaidens, ←8 | 9→Bernard explained that deep underground there are large caverns that hold a great deal of air:

When the force of this air encounters anything solid, it cannot break out [erumpere nequit] while the solid object is in the way, nor, since it is mobile, can it stand still. There is a clash [confligit], and the repercussion from the encounter shakes the earth [ex violentia impulsus terram incutit]. The earth tremor [terre tremor] will continue until the wind either draws back or breaks out with an eruption [erumpat] … By repeatedly scraping along the ground and rubbing against the sulphurous veins of the earth, the wind generates fire just as in volcanic mountains air begets smoke [fumigationes]. (10)


VI, 182
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (September)
Dante and neoplatonism Bernard Silvestris Alan of Lille William of Conches Hugh of St. Victor Boethius and the commentary tradition twelfth century renaissance School of Chartres imago mundi encyclopedism divine naming cataphatic apophatic The Infinite Beauty of the World Jason M. Baxter
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. VI, 182 pp.

Biographical notes

Jason M. Baxter (Author)

Jason M. Baxter is Associate Professor of Humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. Trained at the University of Notre Dame, his research has focused on the Boethian commentary tradition, the twelfth-century poet, Bernard Silvestris, and the influence of Latin platonism on Dante. He is also author of the introductory A Beginner’s Guide to the Divine Comedy, published in 2018.


Title: The Infinite Beauty of the World