The dissertation examines how Dante draws on the medieval tradition on Statius to develop his portrait of his character Stazio, taking advantage of Statius’ standing as an auctor about whom little was known in the Middle Ages. The changes Dante introduces into Stazio’s biography illuminate the functions the poet intended Stazio to have in the Commedia. Stazio’s unexpected conversion dramatizes the Christianization of classical culture that Dante strives to effectuate through his poetry. Stazio’s presence also helps Dante to define his own complex feelings toward Virgil. Dante’s other major change—Stazio’s prodigality—may ultimately be as important for Dante’s purposes as Stazio’s conversion. Since Dante’s own sins and repentance are an integral part of the narrative of the Commedia, it was important for Dante to introduce a prior example of a sinful poetic auctor in order to establish his own auctoritas. Through the biblical precedent of prodigality representing sin generically, Dante establishes Stazio as an Everyman sinner who becomes an Everyman Christian through his conversion, and who also represents all Christians who are sanctified through the process of purgation.
The way Dante works with and adapts Statius’ poetry in Inferno and Purgatorio suggests that Dante genuinely appreciated Statius as a poet. The Thebaid is a particularly fruitful source for Dante’s depiction of Hell and its characters, especially in the lowest three circles of violence, fraud, and treachery. Dante’s use of Statius’ works in the Purgatorio is more surprising, and perhaps more complex. There is evidence to suggest that scenes from the later books of the Thebaid, either the story of Menoeceus’ sacrifice or the prayers to Clementia, or both, may have influenced Dante’s decision to Christianize Stazio.
Finally, Dante uses Stazio in order to express a complex position on the interpretation of poetry. Stazio’s account of his conversion provides an argument for the value of poetry as a vehicle for truth. However, Stazio’s narrative also points to a fact especially inherent in poetic discourse—authors cannot control their audiences’ response to their texts. The Commedia is a sacro poema—either sacred or sacrilegious, according to how it is interpreted.