Paradiso 12 begins with a great example of the “anti-narrative”/“lyrical” language that Dante deploys in Paradiso in opposition to his discursive/logical/“narrative” language. I describe the narrative texture of Paradiso as the poet’s sapient oscillation between these two modes in The Undivine Comedy (pp. 207-08):
The openings of both cantos 12 and 13 are lyrical explosions dedicated to impressing upon us the unity of the two circles, a unity that has just been shattered by the preceding biographies, with their relentless privileging—and denial—of difference. When Dante tells us that difference does not exist, as in the introductory sections of the vite, he creates it; when he wholeheartedly wishes to create the illusion of lack of difference, he resorts not to statements about its presence or absence but to another kind of writing, one that does not (insofar as is humanly possible) make distinctions. In these passages, the text becomes an incandescent swirl of language, as the poet layers simile within simile, intending thus to disconnect the logical connectors of discourse à la St. Thomas:Come si volgon per tenera nube due archi paralelli e concolori, quando Iunone a sua ancella iube, nascendo di quel d’entro quel di fori, a guisa del parlar di quella vaga ch’amor consunse come sol vapori . . . . . . . . . . . . . così di quelle sempiterne rose volgiensi circa noi le due ghirlande, e sì l'estrema all'intima rispuose. (Par. 12.10-15, 19-21)Just as, concentric, like in color, two rainbows will curve their way through a thin cloud when Juno has commanded her handmaid, the outer rainbow echoing the inner, much like the voice of one—the wandering nymph— whom love consumed as sun consumes the mist . . . . . . . . . . . . . . so the two garlands of those everlasting roses circled around us, and so did the outer circle mime the inner ring.
The above verses “describe” the joyous dance of the second circle of wise men, which now appears.
The lead soul of the second circle begins to speak in verse 31 and explains that the previous eulogy of St. Francis calls for a corresponding celebration of St. Dominic. He therefore eulogizes the life of Saint Dominic, the founder of the Dominican order. The speaker will turn out to be Saint Bonaventure, a great Franciscan mystic known as the Dottore Serafico. So, following the chiasmic structure already seen in the preceding canto, where the great Dominican Saint Thomas praises Saint Francis and denounces Dominican corruption, here a great Franciscan praises Saint Dominic and then concludes by denouncing Franciscan corruption.
The vita of St. Dominic in Paradiso 12 is a precise rhetorical counterpart to the vita of St. Francis in Paradiso 11. As the chart found at the end of this Introduction shows, the two eulogies are constructed according to a rigorous system of compensatory rhetoric.
The life of St. Dominic, although recounted in less linear and more metaphoric fashion than the life of St. Francis, nonetheless captures his historical importance as a warrior for the church and as a great scholar: he is a “gran dottore” (Par. 12.85). Picking up the theme of the “insensata cura de’ mortali”—the senseless pursuit of careers like law and medicine and politics—from the beginning of Paradiso 11, Dominic is said to have turned from “the world”, “lo mondo” (82), and from law and medicine (professions exemplified by “Ostiense” and “Taddeo” in verse 83), to become a scholar. So armed, he began to oversee God’s vineyard:
Non per lo mondo, per cui mo s’affanna di retro ad Ostiense e a Taddeo, ma per amor de la verace manna in picciol tempo gran dottor si feo; tal che si mise a circuir la vigna che tosto imbianca, se ’l vignaio è reo. (Par. 12.82-87)
Not for the world, for which men now travail behind Taddeo or Hostiensis, but through his love of the true manna, he became, in a brief time, so great a teacher that he began to oversee the vineyard that withers when neglected by its keeper.
Overseeing God’s vineyard required St. Dominic to use “his learning and his zeal” to prosecute the Albigensian crusade. The Albigensians were heretics in the south of France, the same heretics combated by Folquet de Marselha when he was Bishop of Toulouse (see Paradiso 9):
Poi, con dottrina e con volere insieme, con l’officio appostolico si mosse quasi torrente ch’alta vena preme; e ne li sterpi eretici percosse l’impeto suo, più vivamente quivi dove le resistenze eran più grosse. (Par. 12.97-102)
Then he, with both his learning and his zeal, and with his apostolic office, like a torrent hurtled from a mountain source, coursed, and his impetus, with greatest force, struck where the thickets of the heretics offered the most resistance.
The large narratological chiasmus that bridges Paradiso 11 and Paradiso 12 requires that St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan, not only praise St. Dominic, but also that he critique the Franciscans.
The coda on the corruption of the current Franciscan order begins in Paradiso 12.106. It is of particular importance because in it Dante engages the controversial history of the Franciscan order, riven since Francis’ death by contending currents, referred to here as those who would “flee” the rule of St. Francis, and those who would “rigidify” it (“ch’uno la fugge, e altro la coarta” [Par. 12.126]).
Finally, the speaker announces that he is St. Bonaventure:
Io son la vita di Bonaventura da Bagnoregio, che ne’ grandi office sempre pospuosi la sinistra cura. (Par. 12.127-29)
I am the living light of Bonaventure of Bagnorea; in high offices I always put the left-hand interests last.
Bonaventure then introduces the other eleven souls in his circle (the names of the souls who make up the two circles are on the document below). As he goes around the circumference, he comes eventually to the soul next to him, who is the Calabrian prophet Joachim of Flora:
il calavrese abate Giovacchino, di spirito profetico dotato. (Par. 12.140-41)
at my side shines the Calabrian Abbot Joachim, who had the gift of the prophetic spirit.
Joachim is to Bonaventure much as Sigier of Brabant is to St. Thomas: a more radical and extreme version of himself, with whose positions while alive he emphatically disagreed. Joachim’s mystical and apocalyptic vision of history was championed by some extreme elements of the Franciscan order. Here, in the heaven of wisdom, the two very different men are equidistant from the truth.
Like the previous two canti, Paradiso 12 has been of great interest to historians. There are many names in these canti, and each of these names belongs to a man who played a significant role in intellectual history, political history, and/or religious history. The only exceptions are the two early followers of St. Francis, Illuminato and Augustino, whose lights adorn the second circle and of whom we know next to nothing.
Besides the twenty-four souls who make up the two “crowns” of wise men, there are also the names of Francis and Dominic themselves, as well as many others who participate in the various histories related in these canti: for instance, the pope who approved Francis’ order in Par. 11.92, the Sultan before whom Francis, an early missionary, preached Christ in Par. 11.101-02, and the Franciscans Ubertino da Casale and Matteo d’Acquasparta in Par. 12.124. Many of these individuals have sparked scholarly interest on their own; for instance, Davide Bolognesi, a recent Columbia Ph.D., wrote his dissertation on Ubertino da Casale, a prolific Franciscan zealot.
In sum, Dante packs a terrific amount of intellectual history into his heaven of wisdom.