The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Paradiso 17


Back to the Future

Coordinated Reading: on the canti of the heaven of Mars as the poem’s “epic core,” see The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 6, “Re-Presenting What God Presented,” pp. 137-40; Dante’s Poets, pp. 282-83; on Dante’s social anxiety, see “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan Ziolkowski, Harvard U. Press, 2014, pp. 163-79.

The pilgrim now asks Cacciaguida about the prophecies that were made to him in the course of his journey, by Ciacco in Inferno 6 and by Farinata in Inferno 10 and by Brunetto Latini in Inferno 15: prophecies of the exile and disgrace that await him. Dante was exiled from Florence, we recall, in 1302.

The heaven of Mars, as we have seen, celebrates family lineage and family ties: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, children. The female side of the lineage is not absent: Cacciaguida refers to “mia madre, ch’è or santa” (my mother, blessed now) in Paradiso 16.35 and explains that the Alighieri surname comes from his wife, “mia donna venne a me di val di Pado, / e quindi il sopranome tuo si feo” (my wife came from the valley of the Po—the surname that you bear was brought by her) in Paradiso 15.137-38.

But most of all this heaven celebrates fathers. And thus it is not altogether surprising to find that the pilgrim, in describing to his great-great-great-grandfather the journey through the afterlife in which he learned of his future exile, uses (for the first time since Purgatorio 30) the name of “Virgilio”, the Roman poet who was his surrogate father through much of his journey:

mentre ch’io era a Virgilio congiunto
su per lo monte che l'anime cura 
e discendendo nel mondo defunto, 
dette mi fuor di mia vita futura
parole gravi . . .			 (Par. 17.19-23)
while I was in the company of Virgil,
both on the mountain that heals souls and when
descending to the dead world, what I heard
about my future life were grievous words . . .

In initiating his explanation of future events, Cacciaguida takes the profoundly historicized family motif of the heaven of Mars and metaphorizes it. He also makes it negative, announcing that Dante’s ruin will come about (like Hippolytus’s—also an innocent) because of a wicked stepmother and through the machinations of the papal court and Pope Boniface VIII:

Qual si partio Ipolito d’Atene 
per la spietata e perfida noverca,
tal di Fiorenza partir ti convene.
Questo si vuole e questo già si cerca,
e tosto verrà fatto a chi ciò pensa
là dove Cristo tutto dì si merca.	 (Par. 17.46-51)
Hippolytus was forced to leave his Athens
because of his stepmother, faithless, fierce; 
and so must you depart from Florence: this
is willed already, sought for, soon to be
accomplished by the one who plans and plots
where—every day—Christ is both sold and bought.

Cacciaguida now tells the pilgrim of the loss and alienation that exile will bring him:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta. 
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale 
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.	 (Par. 17.55-60)
You shall leave everything you love most dearly: 
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first. You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salt it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
descending and ascending others’ stairs.

The poignancy of these famous verses is guaranteed by our knowledge that the man who wrote them had already endured the sufferings they recount for many long years.

Exile will also bring Dante the mortification of finding that his companions in exile, his fellow Whites, turn against him, showing him utter ingratitude (“tutta ingrata” [Par. 17.64]).

But there will be, if not solace, at least a harbor in the storm, a “refuge” offered by the della Scala family, lords of Verona:

Lo primo tuo refugio e ’l primo ostello
sarà la cortesia del gran Lombardo
che ’n su la scala porta il santo Uccello;
ch’in te avrà sì benigno riguardo,
che del fare e del chieder, tra voi due,
fia primo quel che tra li altri è più tardo. (Par. 17.70-75)
Your first refuge and your first inn shall be
the courtesy of the great Lombard, he
who on the ladder bears the sacred bird.
And so benign will be his care for you
that, with you two, in giving and in asking, 
that shall be first which is, with others, last.

For a prickly and defensive man like Dante, who feels acutely the discomfort of taking that which is given by “others” (“lo pane altrui” and “l’altrui scale”), as compared to that which is earned for oneself or provided by one’s own family’s fortune, there is no greater compliment in the social sphere than the one he pays here: Bartolomeo della Scala is a host who gives before being asked, not subjecting Dante to the humiliation of the request.

Important in this context is the opening section of Epistola 13, the Letter to Cangrande della Scala, in which Dante theorizes the possibility of friendship between unequals. Dante’s shame at the disgrace of exile exacerbates his already keen sense of social disparity, shown in his early pre-exilic awareness of the distance between himself and his friends who belong to rich and powerful magnate families. I touch on this issue in the essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety.”

Dante has a long history, by the time he writes Paradiso 17, of bringing into balance what he experiences as his social inferiority by means of the immense social capital generated by his writing and his intellectual attainments. Dante’s own family, although gentile in a minor sort of way, was not wealthy or important: it is a family we know of because of Dante himself. He makes the same move now, bringing this canto of exile and disgrace to a close with his anointment as an epic poet by Cacciaguida.

The pilgrim asks his ancestor to guide him as a poet: his problem is how to weigh present popularity against future fame. In the course of his journey he has seen that which, in the recounting, will be quite unpleasant to the taste. And yet, if he does not recount what he has witnessed, he fears that he will lose long “life”—“vivere”, in other words fame and longevity as a poet—among the readers of the future:

e s’io al vero son timido amico,
temo di perder viver tra coloro 
che questo tempo chiameranno antico. 	(Par. 17.118-20)
yet if I am a timid friend of truth,
I fear that I may lose my life among
those who will call this present, ancient times.

Dante is here writing about the readers of the future—in other words, he is writing about us. We are “coloro / che questo tempo chiameranno antico” (those will call this present, ancient times [Par. 17.119-20).

The answer is a trumpet blast of clarity. Tell everything you have seen, says Cacciaguida: “tutta tua vision fa manifesta” (let all that you have seen be manifest [Par. 17.128]).

There are several points I would like to make here. One is that Cacciaguida suggests that Dante’s journey has been engineered (by Whom?) in order to make his vision more compellingly pedagogic. He has been shown famous souls because in this way the encounters he recounts will be exemplary and more didactically powerful:

Però ti son mostrate in queste rote,
nel monte e ne la valle dolorosa
pur l’anime che son di fama note . . .	 (Par. 17.136-38)
Therefore, within these spheres, upon the mountain,
and in the dismal valley, you were shown
only those souls that unto fame are known . . .

It is important to point out that Cacciaguida’s remark is, as I note in Dante’s Poets, “patently untrue”. For, “most of the souls Dante meets we would never have heard of were it not for his poem” (Dante’s Poets, p. 282). I continue:

They are famous now because the text has given them life, making them into the kinds of exemplary figures whom Cacciaguida describes; Cacciaguida's assertion, untrue when it was written, is true now, because the text has made it true.

So here again, in this canto of his poetic investiture, we find Dante conflating life and text. He goes back to one of his oldest poetic tropes, that of writing down faithfully what life offers him (see the “book of memory” at the beginning of the Vita Nuova). And in this case Cacciaguida retrofits the souls whom the pilgrim has encountered in order to fit an exemplary model that is appropriate for an epic poem.

Let me end on the heroic note sounded by this page in The Undivine Comedy:

In these cantos of the Paradiso, Dante explores the ancient epic function of the poet who does not attenuate or flinch from the sorrows of the history he records but who yet invokes time’s consolations—fame and memory—to counter time’s scissors and their bitter corollary, the fact that “Le vostre cose tutte hanno lor morte.” That all our things have their death is the fact that epics never forget (and with which they end: Hector’s death, Turnus’s death, Beowulf’s death, Rodomonte’s death), the fact that—in the gesture that makes them “epic”—they heroically and flimsily deny with words, the words that give life not only to the sung but to the singer. In epic fashion, Dante must tell the truth, because otherwise he fears to lose his future life among us, his readers, the ones who will call his time ancient: “temo di perder viver tra coloro / che questo tempo chiameranno antico” (Par. 17.119-20). And, true to the epic key of these cantos, Cacciaguida does not reprove the pilgrim for desiring life—“viver”—through his literary prowess; rather he incites him to tell the truth and provides him the literary formula most likely to guarantee his future life in words. The very coinage infuturarsi, used by Cacciaguida to refer to the pilgrim’s future life in words, echoes the coinage etternarsi of the Brunetto episode; but the Paradiso does not conform to the theological grid by confirming the vanity of literary immortality, the Inferno’s suggested impossibility of living in a text. Instead, these epic cantos recast Brunetto’s message, empowering the poet to live in his words, among those “che questo tempo chiameranno antico.” Nor does this poet grow indifferent to posterity’s mandate; in the Commedia’s final canto, in a final epic surge, Dante still prays to be able to reach “la futura gente” with his poetry: “e fa la lingua mia tanto possente, / ch’una favilla sol de la tua gloria / possa lasciare a la futura gente” (and make my tongue so powerful that one spark alone of your glory it may leave for future folk [Par. 33.70-72]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 140)

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Paradiso 17 : Back to the Future." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading