1265-1321 Dante Alighieri.

Dante's Garden, with legends of the flowers online

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The Gift of Beatrix Farrand

to the General Library

University of California, Berkeley






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" Let thy upsoaring vision range at large
This garden through : for so by ray divine
Kindled, thy ken a higher flight shall mount."


" Vola con gli occhi per questo giardino :
Che veder lui t'acconcera lo sguardo
Piu al montar per lo raggio divino."

Par. xxxi. 97.







Farrand Gif "E







The English translations of the Divina Commedia
used in this little collection of flower-legends are
taken from Cary's Vision of Dante.

The author also wishes to express her indebted-
ness to Mr. Richard Folkard's book on Plant Lore,
Legend and Lyric, from which she has derived
much valuable help, and her gratitude to Mr.
Paget Toynbee for kindly consenting to contribute
a prefatory note.

The frontispiece is due to the courtesy of
Messrs. Alinari of Florence, by whose kind
permission their photograph of Giotto's portrait
of Dante has been reproduced.


IN this little volume a collection has been
made of some of the passages in the
Divina Commedia which give evidence of Dante's
love for flowers, and trees, and all the details of
plant-life. Dante was a close observer of Nature,
and many of the most beautiful similes in his
poem are drawn from his observations of the
familiar phenomena of the garden and of the
countryside. Even the gloom of his Hell is
relieved by such pictures as those of the drooping
flowers revived after a frost by the warmth of the
sun (ii. 127-9), — the slowly falling leaves and
" bare ruined choirs " of autumn (hi. 112-14>), — the
gale crashing through the woods and rending the
branches (ix. 67-70), — the pastures covered with
the thick hoar-frost (xxiv. 1-9), — the tenacious
grasp of the ivy on the tree-trunk (xxv. 58-9), —
while the descriptions in the Purgatory of the
Terrestrial Paradise, with its wealth of flowers, and
foliage, and grassy river-banks, are not surpassed
for brilliancy of colouring even by the gorgeous
flower-gardens with which we are familiar in the
frescoes of Fra Angelico and of Benozzo Gozzoli.


A special interest is added to the passages
selected by the inclusion of the legends and
traditions connected with the various flowers and
plants mentioned by Dante. It is doubtful,, how-
ever, to what extent Dante was himself acquainted
with these. There is little trace in his writings
of any knowledge on his part of plant-lore *
(except, of course, such as is to be derived from
classical sources, as in the case of the mulberry,
for instance), though he was familiar enough with
the kindred lore of the " bestiaries," as is evident
from his references to the phoenix and the pelican.
Sometimes, perhaps, a point has been stretched in
order to include such flowers as the narcissus, the
veronica, and the passion flower, to which Dante
does not actually refer, but the reader will prob-
ably not be inclined to cavil on this account.

Those who know Dante only as the Poet of
Hell will, we think, be grateful to Miss Cotes for
her presentation of him here as the Poet of
Flowers, a title not inappropriate to one whose
native place was Fiorenza, the Flower-City.

Paget Toynbee.

1 A possible exception is his mention of the heliotrope in
the Letter to the Princes and Peoples of Italy ; but the refer-
ence in this case is probably not, as many think, to the
flower, but to the gem, of that name.




Dante's Garden ........



The Olive .......-•


The Veronica or Speedwell ....

2 9


The Lily .....•••



The Marguerite or Daisy .....

• 45



• 58

The Violet .......

. 62

• 6s

The Pine

• 7°

• 73

. 76


The Stringa


The Myrtle

The Fir

The Narcissus

The Briar-Rose .

The Palm .

The Vine .

The Star of Bethlehem





9 8






" Let thy upsoaring vision range at large
This garden through ..."

Par. xxxi. 97.

NO reader of the Divina Commedia can fail
to notice Dante's love for all the green,
fresh, scented things of the earth, and more
especially for flowers.

Throughout the latter part of the poem we
find him continually employing flowers, in three
distinct ways. First, for their colour — he con-
stantly uses them as examples of the delicate
tints he wishes to convey to the mind of the
reader. Then, for their emblematical signi-
ficance — as he was accustomed to think of them
in association with the legends of the saints in
mediaeval Church history, or as adorning heathen
mythology. And lastly, for the flowers them-



selves ; for the love he bore them because they
were flowers, and because they were associated
in his mind with early aspirations of innocence
and purity.

Much in his writings leads us to imagine that
at some period of Dante's life there may have
been a garden that he knew and loved — a garden
to which his thoughts recurred with all the vivid-
ness of boyish impression, when, as a banished
man, and an outcast from home and country, he
wrote of early dawn, the scented earth, the leaves
all bending in one direction as the breeze passed
over them, and the song of the birds in the

Whenever he alludes to a garden, it is always
as a place of joy and innocence, a restful oasis
in his journey from the Inferno, and eventually
realised amongst his highest conceptions of
heavenly felicity.

Dante, speaking in the person of Adam, says
of the Terrestrial Paradise —

"... Dio mi pose
Nell' eccelso giardino, ove costei
A cosi lunga scala ti dispose." 1

" God placed me in that high garden, from whose bounds
She led thee up the ladder, steep and long."

1 Par. xxvi. 109.


And in the same canto —

" As for the leaves that in the garden bloom
My love for them is great, as is the good
Dealt by the eternal hand that tends them all."

" Le fronde onde s'infronda tutto l'orto
Dell' Ortolano eterno, am'io cotanto,
Quanto da lui a lor di bene e porto." 1

And again, speaking of St. Dominic, he calls
him —

" The labourer whom Christ in His own garden
Chose to be His help-mate."

" . . . Ed io ne parlo
Si come dell' agricola, che Cristo
Elesse all' orto suo, per aiutarlo. " 2

Sometimes it is the garden of the Terrestrial
Paradise, sometimes the garden of the Church,
and sometimes that most exquisite and glorious
garden of heaven itself —

"... that beautiful garden
Blossoming beneath the rays of Christ."

" . . . il bel giardino
Che sotto i raggi di Cristo s'infiora," 3

the garden of which Dante says, " Heaven's
decree forecasts" that it shall be filled eventually
with all the spirits of the blest.

1 Par. xxvi. 64. 2 Par. xii. 70. 3 Par. xxiii. 71.



There is a passage in the Vita Nuovei in which
Dante, after speaking of his first meeting with
Beatrice, in his ninth year, says that he went
many times in his boyhood to seek this most
youthful angel, at the bidding of Love, who had
then taken rule in his heart. May not these first
meetings have taken place in a garden ? — in the
garden of Beatrice's Florentine home ?

We have ample evidence in his writings that
a garden existed somewhere in Dante's fancy,
and that thither the poet would often retire in
imagination, and wander along its paths, and
refresh his weary soul with the springing green
shoots, the leaves and herbs and flowers, which
are brought so vividly before us in the Purged orio
and Paradiso.

Who would not have loved to roam with him
here ? What a store of legend and poesy and
fancy must have hung around the plants and
flowers of many lands in this garden of his, flowers
whose seeds had been brought by the circling
breezes from the Terrestrial Paradise.

The thought of a flower may be suggestive, as
the pages of a missal in some ancient shaded
library, whereon glow wondrous quaint illumina-
tions, and brilliant, richly-coloured borders, with
legends and old-world stories written between.
For every flower has its history, which differs



for each human soul that reads between the

Dante does not mention many flowers by name,
nor any, without clear indication that he has
dreamt and thought much over its legendary
association, that to him it is not only a flower, but
also the emblem of certain virtues or saintly
qualities, or the graceful memento of some classical
legend. In everything connected with Dante's
flowers we have the mystic soul of the poet
impressed upon us — the poet who sees more than
the flower whilst gazing at the flower, and to
whom the vision of its beauty opens avenues of
thought, in which the object itself at times is
swept away by the flood of fancy it produces.

In this manner we may interpret his allusions
to the narcissus, the syringa, the veronica, and
many others, where the poetical references are to
the legends rather than to the flowers associated
with the legends, yet one may suppose that the
poet at the same time had in mind the dainty
scented blossom, the green rush by the riverside,
or the wild bird's-eye imprinted with the face of
the Saviour, that ever turns its transparent petals
towards the sky, and that he indulged the double
fancy with a full appreciation of the additional
beauty suggested, by the association of the legend
with the flower.



The old well-known legends of the flowers,
whether mythological or ecclesiastical, may well
carry us back into Dante's garden, whither the
poet, outcast and banished, would retire from the
harsh realities of his daily life, and would wander
in fancy at early dawn, when the leaves were full
of the movement and song of the awakening birds,
and whence, amidst the wealth of bloom and
colour, he would select here a leaf and there a
flower for the embellishment of his immortal



" No braid of lilies on their temples wreathed.
Rather, with roses, and each vermeil flower,
A sight, but little distant, might have sworn
That they were all on fire above their brows."

" . . . di gigli
D'intorno al capo, non facevan brolo,
Anzi di rose e d'altri fior vermigli :
Giurato avria poco lontano aspetto,
Che tutti ardesser di sopra da i cigli."

Purg. xx ix. 146.

IT was the dream of the poet Anacreon, that
Aurora dipped her finger-tips into the calyx
of the rose to colour them, and as translated by
St. Victor —

" Des plus tendres de ses feux
Venus entiere se colore,"

Anacreon goes on to tell us how the earth first
came to produce this beautiful creation.

The wave having given birth to its glorious

B 17


goddess Cypris, and Minerva having sprung from
the brain of Jupiter, Cybele could only oppose
to the beauty of these two goddesses a tiny bud
appearing upon a young shoot. But at the first
sight of the nascent rose-bud Olympus smiled,
and shed upon it nectar for dew. The young
bud, thus watered from heaven, slowly opened,
and upon its shining stem appeared the first
rose, the queen of flowers, unfolding her petals
in the summer sunshine.

To Dante the first flower in his garden is
the rose, and this not for any mythological
association, but because it represented to him
the centre of his religion and faith. To him
it is a flower full of mystery, the flower which
Solomon sang, the rose blossoming in the garden
of Paradise.

It represents in all his symbolism the Blessed

"... that fair flower, whom duly 1 invoke
Both morn and eve ..."

"... quel bel nor, ch'io sempre invoco
E mane e sera . . . " l

and to whom his Beatrice herself is but hand-
maiden. A great governing fact in Dante's life
is his love for Beatrice, but the keynote of his

1 Par. xxiii. 88.


existence is his love for God. He says that the
knitting of his heart to God has from the sea of
ill-love saved his bark.

He employs the rose to describe the whole
army of the saints, moving in advancing and
receding circles, like a white rose unfolding
and closing its petals. The thrones of all the

"... in a circle spread so far
That the circumference were too loose a zone
To g-irdle in the sun,'' 1


he compares to a rose with its leaves extended
wide. The holy multitude in heaven seem to

"In fashion as a snow-white rose."

"In forma di Candida rosa." 2

In pictured representations of the Blessed
Virgin the lily is frequently introduced, as a fit
emblem of grace and purity ; but with Dante
the lily is not sufficient. No pale colour, or the
purity of white only, can express in his glowing
imagery the mystery of humanity carried into
heaven, or, in the person of the mother of our
Lord, drawing heaven down to itself.

1 Par. xxx. 103. - Par. xxxi. I.



To him the Blessed Virgin is the rose.

"... the rose,
Wherein the Word divine was made incarnate."

" . . . la rosa, in che'l Verbo Divino
Carne si fece." 1

These burning words do not express the pallor of
the lily, but the fall, glorious, scented bosom of
the rose. Beatrice, with her eyes full of gladness,
points out to him the mystic rose, in the garden
of Paradise, blossoming under the rays of God.

In the canto before that in which Beatrice first
appears and speaks with Dante, he describes a
glorious vision of a triumphal procession of the
Christian Church. In this vision roses and lilies
both figure as crowns on the brows of the saints,
and their comparative significance in his mind is
clearly indicated.

The lily is the type of purity, only reached in
heaven ; but the rose is still first. For the rose
includes everything : light and vivid colour, and
purity above all, but purity that has blossomed
forth into the living name of heavenly love. The
last seven spirits in the procession, who wear the
red roses, no longer need

"The braid of lilies on their temples wreathed,"

1 Par, xxiii. 73.


but, at a little distance, it might have seemed

"They were all on fire above their brows," 1

enwreathed with red roses — on fire with heavenly-
zeal and love. This is but in the Earthly Paradise.
Later on, when Dante reaches heaven, he says
that he feels love and adoration "full blossomed "
in his bosom " as a rose before the sun,"

". . . When the consummate flower
Has spread to utmost amplitude ! "

"Come il Sol fa la rosa, quando aperta
Tanto divien quant ? ell' ha di possanza." 2

1 Purg. xxix. 150. 2 Par. xxii. 56.



". . . In white veil with olive wreathed
A virgin in my view appeared, beneath
Green mantle, robed in hue of living flame."

" Sopra candido vel cinta d'oliva
Donna m'apparve, sotto verde manto,
Vestita di color di fiamma viva."

Purg. xxx. 31.

" As the multitude
Flock round a herald sent with olive branch
To hear what news he brings."

"E come a messaggier che porta olivo
Tragge la gente per udir novelle."

Purg. ii. 70.

OLIVE is the sign of peace, and when Dante
encircles Beatrice's brow with olive it is a
sign that she comes as a messenger of peace from
God to him.

Most of the countries in Europe have retained



different versions of the ancient Hebrew and
Greek traditions of the tree of Adam.

This tree arose from the grave of our first
parents and the three rods of which it was
composed were the olive, the cedar, and the
cypress. These three rods grew together, and
the cross of Christ was afterwards made of the
tree they produced.

Sir John Maundeville writes: "The table
" aboven His heved that was a fote and a half
" long, on whiche the tytle was written in Ebrew,
" Grece, and Latyn, that was of Olyve ; ' ] and in
another place he quaintly explains it : " The
" table of the tytle thei maden of Olyve ; for
" Olyve betokeneth Pes. And the storye of Noe
" witnesseth whan that Culver broughte the
" braunche of Olyve, that betokened pes made
ee betwene God and man. And so trowed the
fC Jewes for to have pes whan Crist was ded ; for
" thei sayd that He made discord and strife
" amonges them."

The table of the title being made of olive has
always been considered in the Church as an
emblem of peace and reconciliation between God
and man, over the dying body of Christ ; and in
many parts of Italy there still survive favourable
superstitions with regard to an olive branch.
The young girls use them for divination, and



the peasants believe that no witch or sorcerer
will enter a house where an olive branch that
has been blessed is suspended. In Venetia it
is considered a safeguard against storm and
lightning, and amongst the ancient songs of
Provence one — called the Reaper's Grace — is
yet retained in their harvest festivals of the
present day, recording the story of the tree of
Adam, and the olive of which the title-board
was made.

In Grecian and Roman mythology the olive
is dedicated to Minerva. Virgil calls her " Oleae
Inventrix," the originator of the olive, on account
of an old tradition that she disputed the worship
of the Athenians with Neptune, and when the
god of the sea opened a salt spring in the rock
of the Acropolis to show his power, Minerva
caused a beautiful olive tree to spring from the
ground. The gods held a council, and awarded
the palm to Minerva, who became the tutelary
deity of the Athenians, and from that time their
rulers sought to turn them from warlike and
seafaring pursuits to the cultivation of the soil
and arts of peace.

Perhaps Dante remembered when he crowned
Beatrice with olive, that thus from the olive
might be said to date the glorious works of
Cimabue and Giotto, since art in Italy derived



its first inspiration from the earlier art and
civilisation of Greece, for which Greece was
indebted to the sacred olive branch.

An olive tree grew in the temple of Minerva.
When any Athenian went to consult the Delphic
oracle he carried a branch of olive in his hand ;
and in the laws of Solon special directions were
given for the proper mode of planting and nurtur-
ing the sacred tree.

A legend handed down from the earliest times
records that when Adam was very aged he
attempted to root up a large bush, and having
strained himself in the effort, and feeling his
end approaching, he sent his son Seth to the
angel that guarded the gates of the garden of
Eden, to beg for a little of the oil of mercy from
the tree of life.

The angel refused, but sent a message to Adam
to tell him that in later days the precious oil
would be sent to his descendants, when the Son
of God should visit the earth.

He then gave Seth three small seeds to place
in his father's mouth after death, and told him
to bury Adam near Mount Tabor in the Valley
of Hebron.

This was done, and in a short time three rods
appeared above the ground — a cedar, a cypress,
and an olive tree. These did not leave the



mouth of Adam, nor was their existence known,
till Moses received orders of God to cut a branch
from them. This branch exhaled a perfume of
the promised land, and with it Moses performed
many miracles, healing the sick, drawing water
from the rock, etc. It was on the exact spot of
Adam's grave that God appeared to Moses out of
a burning bush, supposed to have been one of
these miraculous trees.

After Moses' death the three rods remained
unheeded in the Valley of Hebron till the time
of King David, who, warned in a dream, went
and found them there. He also performed
miracles with them — healing the leprous, palsied,
and blind. In some stories the three rods are
supposed to have united in one large tree, typical
of the Holy Trinity.

King David placed the young cedar tree in the
temple, where thirty years afterwards Solomon
was about to use it with the cedars of Lebanon
in the glorious restoration of the ancient build-
ings. Here the Queen of Sheba saw it, and
prophesied : " Thrice blessed is this wood on
which the sins of the world shall be expiated ! "
The Jews were indignant at the suggestion of
a degrading death in connection with the
Messiah, and cast it into the " Probatica Piscina,"
the Pool of Bethesda, where it remained till the



day of Christ's condemnation, when it was taken
out to make the cross. During the time that
it remained in the Pool of Bethesda an angel
visited it periodically, and the water had
miraculous powers of healing all diseases.

Sir John Maundeville tells us that the church
of St. Katherine — which stood in his day in the
vicinity of Mount Sinai — marks the spot where
God revealed Himself to Moses, and in it were
many lamps continually kept burning. The birds
kept these lamps supplied with oil, bringing
sprays of olives in their beaks, from which the
monks distilled the oil. " For thei have of Oyle

of Olyves ynow bothe for to brenne in here

lampes, and to ete also ; and that plentie have
" thei, be a Myracle of God, for the Ravens and
" Crowes and the Choughes, and other Foules of
" the Countree, assemblen there every yeer ones,
" and fleen thider as in pilgrimage ; and everyche
" of hem bringethe a Braunch of the Bays or of
" Olyve in here bekes, instede of Offryng, and
" leven hem there, of the whiche the monks

maken grete plentie of Oyle, and this is a gret


The stories which so interested the pious and
credulous soul of Sir John Maundeville had early
taken deep root in Italy, and Dante, when he
places the olive in his garden of imagery, employs



it always in its ecclesiastical significance as an
emblem of peace.

"... As when the multitude
Flock round a herald sent with olive branch
To hear what news he brings ..."

Later, in the same sense, he places the olive
as a wreath on the head of Beatrice when she
descends to him as a glorious apparition from
heaven, clothed in the colours of faith, hope, and
charity, and wearing the emblem of eternal peace
as a coronet around her brow.



' ; . . . Like a wight
Who haply from Croatia wends to see
Our Veronica, and the while 'tis shown
Hangs over it with never-sated gaze —
... So gazed I then adoring."

"Quale e colui, che forse di Croazia.
Viene a veder la Veronica nostra
Che per l'antica fama non si sazia
Ma dice nel pensier, fin che si mostra :
Signor mio Gesu Cristo, Dio verace
Or fu si fatta la sembianza vostra ?
Tale era io . . . "

Par. xxxi. 103.

OUT in the meadows in many country places
grows a little wild flower deserving a
special mention in Dante's garden, for upon its
delicate blue petals is impressed the face of our
Blessed Lord — only a faint and imperfect sugges-



tion of the face, the two eyes enclosed in the M,
recording the word OMO, in the human features
— no actual portrait of the Saviour ; and yet this
little plant bears the name of Veronica, and is
dedicated to the saint whose love and sympathy
preserved to us for all ages the likeness of the
face of Christ.

Dante says, in a passage in the Paradise, — when
he has just met St. Bernard, and is about to
behold a glorious vision of the Blessed Virgin, —
that, " Like to one who haply from Croatia wends
to see our Veronica, and while 'tis shown hangs
over it with never-sated gaze," so he stood lost in
adoring contemplation in heaven.

This Veronica he mentions is not the flower,
but the miraculous handkerchief, with the like-
ness of the Saviour's face impressed upon it,
probably the one in Rome, which attracted vast
numbers of pilgrims from distant parts, to come
and gaze, for once in their lives, upon what
they believed to be the true features of their

The legend of St. Veronica — the most truly
womanly saint of the calendar — relates that when
our Saviour was on His way to Calvary He sank
beneath the weight of the cross, and Veronica
came forward, brave and tender, ready to acknow-
ledge her allegiance amidst all His foes, and

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