Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Mazzotta, Giuseppe


This dissertation investigates “vertical readings” of the Commedia, i.e., the interpretive method that compares and contrasts same-numbered cantos in the three canticles of the poem: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Although there is a consensus that specific vertical readings are intentional, critics remain skeptical of extrapolating it into a totalizing system. This dissertation aims to delineate the methodology’s parameters, trace its emergence in the field of Dante studies, and anchor it within the context of Italian Duecento and Trecento culture. This research investigates the methodology by gathering vertical readings in Dante studies into a comprehensive archive. This catalog provides valuable information regarding the history and emergence of the method and its practitioners’ different theoretical bases. The dissertation is divided into three chapters, and each, in turn, is divided into two parts. The first chapter begins by analyzing the formal elements of Dante’s poem. It emphasizes how the poem’s structure, symmetries, numbers, and names given to its partitions by Dante prompt vertical readings through a desire to imitate the order of the universe and Scripture. The chapter’s second half is a systematic review of the literature on vertical readings. Since various scholars have done vertical readings with differing theoretical bases, a definition is formulated to maximize inclusiveness. The archive suggests two principal hypotheses to explain the poem’s co-numerary parallels. First, they are the product of a composition method based on the arts of rhetoric and memory, revealing the scaffolding Dante used to build his poem. Secondly, the poem’s structure is designed to elicit intratextual readings in imitation of Scripture, thus reframing the poem’s allegorical status. Despite the Commedia’s instantaneous success, there are no mentions of the poem’s vertical patterning before the twentieth-century. Chapter 2 explains this paradoxical situation. The first half is devoted to the thorny issue of Dante, allegory, and medieval literary theory. It analyzes Dante’s writings on the topic of allegory and his own exegetical practices. Notwithstanding the numerous clues embedded into his poem, Dante’s synthesis of the traditional critical apparatus made his innovations unrecognizable to most commentators, principally because they had to confront a plethora of issues regarding the poem’s truth-claims. Nevertheless, the data shows that the early commentary tradition, in its unfolding and successive iterations, was increasingly glossing the poem along co-numerary lines, particularly at the center of the poem. As a result, proto-vertical readings have been identified. In the chapter’s second half, the locus of recognition shifts from criticism to poetry because poets hold a privileged position in understanding Dante’s deployment of rhetorical strategies that involve matters of structure, form, and content. An investigation of two of Dante’s poem’s most notable imitations, Petrarch’s Trionfi and Boccaccio’s Amorosa visione, shows that the other two ‘crowns’ of the so-called “Tre corone” of Italian literature were indeed aware of the Commedia’s vertical hermeneutics. In the third and final chapter, vertical hermeneutics keep pointing outwards, beyond the sphere of literary influence, and toward unexpected homologous patterns and sources, such as Canon Tables and visual arts. The first half begins by looking at stylistic elements in some of Dante’s ekphrases in Paradiso and underlines their meta-textual nature and their use of spatial semiotics. Geometric features, such as the circle and horizontal and vertical lines, play a crucial role in Dante’s representation of the divine and, more importantly, guide the poem’s interpretation. They enact a semiotics that emphasizes the spatial relationships between various elements. This form of semiotics is homologous with contemporary visual arts such as the apsidal mosaics in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and those of the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence, as well as paratextual and interpretive tools that have their roots in the arts of rhetoric and memory. Special attention is given to the center of Paradiso and its vertical relationship with the figure of Brunetto Latini, Dante’s teacher and a prominent protagonist in the revival of the arts of rhetoric and memory. The consequence of this centrifugal movement, from Dante outwards, is the realization that vertical hermeneutics are part and parcel of a broader tendency, or at least that they had currency within a collective set of unstated assumptions about the arrangement of signs and their meanings during the Middle Ages. In turn, the methodology of spatial semiotics provides a better understanding of the role of structure and form in both the composition and exegesis of medieval cultural artifacts.