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entry Aug 2008

Enrico Cerulli (1898-1988)

Enrico Cerulli was a Neapolitan scholar and eventually came to be regarded as somewhat the dean of Italian orientalists, specializing in the languages and culture of Ethiopia with secondary, but important, contributions in Arabic and Islamic scholarship. He attended the Orientale University of Naples and studied under some prominent scholars, including Giorgio Levi della Vida, the prominent Jewish scholar well-known for refusing to swear allegiance to Italian Fascism.

Cerulli came of age during the beginnings of Italian colonialization in Africa and, as an adult, became politically active during Mussolini’s further pursuit of colonial glory in Africa; Cerulli became Vice Governor of Italian East Africa during the Fascist period. After the war, the restored regime of Haile Sellasie tried to have him charged with war crimes in Ethiopia, but the charges were eventually dropped. Cerulli was, however, barred from ever again setting foot in Ethiopia, notwithstanding the considerable body of work he had contributed to the study of the area. His first works in East African ethnography appeared in the early 1920s and he continued publishing until late in life; his last work was in 1971 and was entitled L'Islam di ieri e di oggi (Islam: Yesterday and Today). He was one of the founders in 1975 of the Italian Institute for Philosophical Studies.

His most interesting work to me is in the field of Islamic studies, if that is the proper term for his 1949 book entitled Il 'Libro della Scala' e la questione delle fonti arabospagnole della Divina Commedia. (The Book of the Scale and the Question of Arab-Spanish Sources of the Divine Comedy.) Perhaps “Islamic-Christian studies” or something similar would be a better term.

Briefly, the book deals with the possibility of a Muslim source for Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. That source, at least, as an inspiration, might have been the Kitab al Miraj (Book of the Miraj, the Arabic word for Muhammad’s miraculous night ride from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascension into the heavens. The story, itself, is mentioned in the Koran and in more detail in the body of supplemental commentary on the Koran called the hadith. The Book of the Miraj was probably written in the mid-1000s by Abu'l-Qasim 'Abdalkarîm bin Hawâzin bin 'Abdalmalik bin Talhah bin Muhammad al-Qushairî al-Nisaburi. It was translated into Latin in the mid-1200s as Liber Scale Machometi; generally, it is called The Book of the Scale in English (“scale” meaning steps or ladder—thus, the book of the upward journey of Muhammad). The structure of the book into different degrees of heaven and hell, and descriptions (and graphic illustrations in many editions) bear a resemblance to the later Divine Comedy.

Cerulli was not the first person to come up with the idea of Muslim influence on Dante. That honor goes to the Spanish scholar Don Miguel Asín Palacios, whose 1919 work, La escatología muselmana en la Divina Comedia started a never-ending discussion about the possibility that Dante used a Muslim source for inspiration. Also in 1949, besides Cerulli’s book, another work on the same subject appeared in Spanish: La escala de Mahoma by José Muñoz Sendino.

One hears that Cerulli and others claim that Dante used the Muslim work as a source. That is overstated. All they say is that it is plausible; after all, one of Dante’s teachers, Brunetto Latini, happened to be in Cordoba in 1264; it is certainly plausible that he had access to the Latin translation. They all go on to point out the differences and, of course, the particular and specifically European genius that Dante’s work reflects.

When Cerulli was awarded an honorary degree in 1963 in Rome, his one-time mentor, Giorgio Levi della Vida, spoke of him as a “prodigy” who at the age of 16 was already studying the languages and culture of east Africa; he was always up at the military hospital in Naples, interviewing soldiers returned from Africa, getting their impressions and whatever tid-bits of language and local culture they happened to have brought back with them. Cerulli was the born scholar. His association with and participation in Italian colonialism in Africa came back to haunt him, however; he never wound up as a professor at an Italian university.



Untitled review by A.R. Nykl of Il 'Libro della Scala' e la questione delle fonti arabospagnole della Divina Commedia by Enrico Cerulli, in Speculum, Vol. 26. No. 2 (Apr., 1951), pp. 376-80.

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