Dante’s Shades: Embryology in Purgatorio XXV from Plurality to (Near) Unicity of Forms

This entry is part 8 of 31 in the series Vol 1-2016

Abstract: This paper explores the concept of shades (“ombre”) inhabiting the otherworld depicted in the Divine Comedy. Dante takes it from the Classical world, and indeed “umbrae” already inhabited the underworld visited by Aeneas in book six of Virgil’s Aeneid, but in Purgatorio XXV he gives it an Aristotelian interpretation so that it could fit the new Christian setting of his poem. In particular, Dante imagines that when a soul separates from its body at physical death and gets to the afterlife, it can unfold a body of air that gives it both an appearance and all the senses, and that a shade is precisely formed by the separated soul and its aerial body. By contextualizing Dante’s explanation in Purgatorio XXV within contemporary eschatological assumptions and embryological discussions, this paper argues that Dante’s doctrine negotiates between two different principles of Scholastic philosophy (unicity and plurality of forms), giving the soul such power that it can indeed unfold a body of air (and therefore have full experience) in the afterlife while at the same time making clear that aerial shades should not be confused with real, fleshly persons. The concept of shade appears as paradoxical, both powerful and limited, and indicates, in different ways, the significance of corporeality for Dante’s anthropology.

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